Every month, we select a book that we love so much that we feel confident guaranteeing that you'll love it too, so much so that we'll give you your money back if you don't. Peruse this list if you're trying to remember one you missed or are looking for more recommendations like it.
If Howard Zinn were interested in ghosts, he may have written something like Colin Dickey's "Ghostland." Sort of a ghosts' history of the United States, Dickey's survey of haunted houses, hotels, prisons, parks, and more reveals the unquiet legacy of our unspoken and often unspeakable past. This thoughtful and meticulously researched work does exactly what popular history should: It entertains while edifying.
A Gentleman in Moscow begins after the Bolshevik Revolution: Count Rostov is placed under house arrest at the Metropol hotel in Moscow. He’s lost his family, his estate, and most of his treasures, and he can never leave the hotel. Ever buoyant, though, Rostov makes the best of it, thanks to a rich cast of characters at the hotel that provide intrigue and diversions. Lose yourself in this grand, sweeping story, so richly detailed you’ll forget the fog that surrounds you.
Christodora is the story of a building and its inhabitants, a city and its citizens, a country and its crisis. In elegant prose spanning several decades, Tim Murphy has crafted an incredibly detailed portrait of the AIDS epidemic and its devastating effect on a whole host of characters. Murphy, who has covered the outbreak and fallout for years now, also creates a moving portrait of a couple and their adoptive son—cataloging their struggles through the New York art world and beyond. Readers will find a story complete with heart equaled by its overall significance as a historical artifact to our culture at large. — John
Being a Beast chronicles Charles Foster's attempt to inhabit the lives of a half dozen animals. In it, Foster regales us with tales of foraging through urban refuse (as a fox); dashing across moors with dogs in chase (as a deer); burrowing in the woods (as a badger), and more. It's a wacky project but Foster proves himself to be a storyteller of uncommon ability, which helps his book become something more than a curiosity. Instead, it's one of the most audacious and engaging books I've read in ages. Full of humor, brash opinions, and constantly verging on wildness, Being a Beast proves just how tantalizingly close--and yet ever-distant--we are to our fellow creatures. It's the kind of mind-expanding work that challenges readers, in the most fun way imaginable, to reconsider their own humanity. Read it! -- Sparks
Homegoing traces the history of a family through a series of linked stories that span several centuries, from the time of the Atlantic slave trade to present day America. Yaa Gyasi is a young writer with a surprisingly mature ability to capture telling moments, whether of the dehumanizing horror of slavery or the manifestations of those very human traits that enabled a people to survive through unimaginable hardship. Written in a rich, lyrical prose, Homegoing has the mark of a classic, a book that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of Toni Morrison.
This book has it all: nature, love, science, drama, heartbreak, joy, and plenty of dirt. Not since Cheryl Strayed's Wild have I read such a rich and compelling nonfiction narrative. Lab Girl is the story of Jahren's life in science, and her writing on the wonders of nature will renew your sense of awe. But more than that, it is an exploration of friendship, mental illness, parenthood, and the messiness of life. The only flaw -- these pages fly by too quickly, leaving you wondering what you could possibly read next that will be just as good.
The Paper Menagerie contains some of the best and most moving stories I've ever read. And writing about them is like trying to write about what you did on your summer vacation as a child. You remember the wonderful things and the magic, but getting that all down on paper seems almost impossible. Ken Liu is a rising star in speculative fiction, one of those rare authors, like Bradbury, who transcends genre. These stories are magic. I defy anyone not to be moved by a mother's love for her son depicted in the title story, or be more than a little concerned by the world depicted in The Perfect Match. There are so many stories in here that I want to draw your attention to, so I'll simply say this: I envy anyone about to read these stories for the first time. These are stories I will certainly be reading again and again.
Anders' new novel is witty, empathetic, otherworldly, and imaginative. Here is the story of Patricia, a misanthropic, witchy Luddite who can converse with the parrots on Telegraph Hill, and Laurence, an endearing super-genius with impressive technological prowess. As the plot progresses, their lives intertwine in San Francisco, and the stakes become unbelievably high--as in, We-Gotta-Do-Something-Or-The-World-Is-Doomed high. My favorite book of the year so far!
Greenwell's debut novel, which has earned raves in the NY Times, the New Yorker, and elsewhere, follows an English teacher's changing relationship with a hustler in Eastern Europe. This beautifully-written story examines the burdens of desire and love, shame and guilt, with disarming, almost uncomfortable intimacy and honesty.
In enchanting prose, Sunil Yapa sets this (his debut novel) in the midst of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. Writing from the point of views of a cast of characters Yapa dips into the minds of the protesters, the cops, and the delegates. Slinking fluidly between the first, second, and third persons, you can't help but relate to all persons involved in this historic event at any time. A novel for the people!
At long last, Drawn + Quarterly presents Adrian Tomine's Killing and Dying, his first short story collection in over a decade. To be sure, Tomine's been busy over the last 10-odd years, most visibly in his frequent contributions to the New Yorker, as well as his auto-biographical lark Scenes from an Impending Marriage, and the under-appreciated, long-form Shortcomings, one of the better works addressing post-millennial race relations in America.
Killing and Dying exhibits a new level of maturity compared to Tomine's earlier works. Anyone who's looked beyond the surface level of his illustrations (and to be fair, it's a really great-looking surface) knows that his stories have always had an absurdist bent to them, focusing on characters trapped in drab situations, usually of their own making.
Tomine's newest work is different in that now "escape" seems attainable. Be it from obsessing over one's own (questionable) talents ("A Brief History of the Art Form Known as 'Hortisculpture'"), an unhealthy relationship gradually reaching its breaking point ("Go Owls"), or a distressing, perpetual case of mistaken identity ("Amber Sweet"), these six stories are the work of someone who has come to realize that everything is transitory.
Aaron Englund uproots his life suddenly when he decides to leave his life-long partner Walter in Albuquerque to settle in San Francisco where he teaches ESL at a local school and lives in a garage-turned-studio-apartment by the ocean. His self-imposed bachelorhood forces him to confront his past: his Midwestern roots, an abusive father, a mother of not-quite-sound mind who abandoned him as a child, and a traumatic memory he has curiously blacked-out. A private investigator friend extends a helping hand when he offers to track down Aaron’s mother, who has maintained radio silence throughout his adult life. A coming-of-middle-age tale, that’s told with heart and bravado by Lori Ostlund, a long-time master of the short story now making her foray into the world of the novel. Ostlund delights with turns of phrase and humor throughout. Every detail, every sentence, every nuance, every hyphen is placed as carefully and as an acupuncturist’s needle—we feel alongside these characters and understand the depths of their predicaments and emotions. Ostlund succeeds in turning the everyday into the exceptional!
Beauty is a Wound opens with a woman twenty years dead clawing her way out of the grave. From there the novel manages to become even more memorable. Written by Indonesia's greatest living writer, this sweeping epic of love, lust, and war is peopled by an unforgettably colorful cast of characters. Kurniawan, who has two novels in translation being published this fall (by different publishers), is worthy of assuming the place left by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He's that good.
Barbarian Days is full of joy, inquisition, passion, travel, and, of course, waves. If you know a surfer, this is a no-brainer, joy-inducing gift. The OB chapter alone is worth the price of admission, and his years traveling the globe in search of a great, empty wave make for a riveting travelogue. Beyond the waves, though, this thoughtful memoir definitely transcends the "surf" genre. The Chronicle review put it best: "Were I given unlimited space to review this book, I would simply reproduce it here, with a quotation mark at the beginning and another at the end."
As a bookseller, writer, and reviewer, a lot of books find their way into the teetering stacks near my bed. I picked up Mia Alvar's In the Country with few expectations, thinking I'd read the first couple of stories to gauge my interest. Cut to two days later when I finished the last piece on the 38R, almost tearful at knowing I'd have to leave Alvar's meticulously-crafted, intoxicatingly-detailed worlds. And yes, I do mean "worlds," plural -- within the first few paragraphs of each story, I slipped into Bahrain, Manila, upper-crust Boston, and Queens like one overtaken by a wave. For those of you who are skeptical of a collection of short stories as opposed to a novel (I'll admit, you perplex me), this is an easy foray into a different genre. Some of these pieces share characters, and their themes and locations are tethered by Alvar's interest in home & belonging, the elusive, slippery prize these people seek. Read this post-haste if you love clean, impactful prose a la Jhumpa Lahiri, Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie, or Jennifer Egan. If that doesn't impress you, consider the fact that this is Mia Alvar's debut (difficult to fathom), and that a first-timer's collection of short fiction (notoriously hard to sell) landed at a prestigious major publisher. Prepare to be walloped.
When I first picked up The Travels of Daniel Ascher, it felt heavy for such a small book, as if something invisible were weighing it down. I opened to the first page, and began a journey that I was not expecting. I found myself immersed in a love story, a mystery, a tragic retelling of horrors from the past, under the guise of a novel about a children's book author whose stories take place in remote and exotic locales. What begins as a curious investigation into where the ideas for his books come from, poetically transforms into an account of love and loss, of personal tragedy and redemption. Ultimately, it is a profound and moving story with sadness, reassurance and bits of humor sprinkled in for good measure. The beautiful heft of this book does not come from any physical attribute, but from the solid purpose and placement of each word on the page by an author who is truly magnificent in her craft.
A is for awe, which is what I feel reading about these women: Angela, Billie Jean, Carol, Dolores, Ella — women who have changed and inspired the world. Awe as in awesome, which is what this book is, what these women are. Awesome as in rad, the root of radical. It’s radical that this book exists: not only because we need a feminist primer for children that cuts across race, class, and gender politics, but because it’s cool. Cool, as in: this isn’t just a book for kids, it’s a book I want to gift to my mom, to all my friends. Rad American Women is as fun as it is informative, as approachable as it is inspiring.
With each successive book, T.C. Boyle just continues to impress. Set in Fort Bragg, California and its surrounding environs, this novel—based on real events—follows Adam, an extreme anarchist to the max, as he continually evades and breaks the law. The manhunt that ensues stirs empathy for all characters involved, even the killer himself. Boyle is dialed in, and at his best here.
What's it like to be a Girl In A Band? I don't quite understand. Sonic Youth. Sacred Trickster. Really, there isn't a way to preface a book like Kim Gordan's Girl In A Band. She might be best known as the bassist and co-lead singer of Sonic Youth, but Kim Gordon is also an icon in fashion and art. Gordon tells her stories about family, love, politics, touring, adversity, and all that happens in between with little restraint and unflinching fearlessness. Just read it already!
From Scott McCloud, the author of the highly praised, Understanding Comics, comes the tale of a young sculptor who trades his life for his art.
David has 200 days to live.
What happens in 200 days?
Boy meets death.
Death cuts boy an irresistible deal.
Boy meets girl.
Girl is damaged.
Boy owes money to tough Russians.
Girl hides boy.
Boy creates beautiful misunderstood sculptures.
Girl confuses boy.
Boy confuses girl.
Things come together.
Things fall apart.
Death keeps his promise.
A great story for those who do and do not read graphic novels, The Sculptor ties together word and image so perfectly that the story leaps from the pages and into the heart of the reader.
On average, I recommend this book to someone once a day, maybe even two times. It is hands-down one of my favorite novels of 2014. Miriam Toews is a well-known author in Canada, her home, and she deserves to be a household name here in the U.S., too, next to Lorrie Moore, and Annie Proulx. Her writing is elegant yet crisp and she tackles the difficult topic of suicide with perfect balance, using humor as a bulwark against despair. Highly and forever recommended!
Michel Faber's Book of Strange New Things is an unforgettable story of love, distance, and desire. You can call the novel science fiction if you'd like--it does feature a bizarre alien race and the end of the world (not at all in the way you think)--but sci-fi elements aside, it's really an epic of the strangeness of life. Faber is a master at developing plot and character; you'll find yourself swept up in this enchanting universe.
Written with the urgency of a nervous heartbeat, Goodhouse is like a reverse Handmaid's Tale with a twist of Clockwork Orange. Set in the not-so-distant Utopian future, the story follows James Goodhouse, one of many boys who tested positive at birth for a set of genetic markers shared by all criminals. Immediately, they are taken from their families with new names to grow up in Goodhouses, where they are trained to curb their apparent criminal tendencies. There, they are forced to follow strict rules and to be test subjects for new drugs, among other questionable tactics. As James nears his 18th birthday (and his possible release into society), he begins to question the integrity of the Goodhouse institution. Do Goodhouses protect or control society? Are the choices he makes out of free will or force? Is James truly a born criminal or a product of prejudice? Marshall's eerie foresight and pulsing prose is filled with twists and turns—sure to be an instant classic of it's genre.
September 2014 (part 2)
a fierce book
about a fierce woman
by a fierce author
love me back can mean many things
love me back like i love you
love me back to the time i was happiest
love me back so ill come back
love me back means
love me back like only great writing can
and in this white hot debut novel
we surely do have that
September 2014 (part 1)
An intimidating debut, Thomas's novel charts the life of one New York woman and her family. Spanning the course of a half century, we readers receive the ultimate pleasure of watching characters transform from children into adults, moving from youth to maturity. The family must confront the reality that something is not right, as a sudden illness shakes the core of who these people are to themselves and to each other. Do not let this book's six-hundred plus pages bully you into leaving it on the shelf, you'll be totally invested from the opening sentence. Go ahead.
Smart, bold, and urgently necessary, this collection of essays by the imminently readable Rebecca Solnit weaves together a global story of gender and power. Solnit is extremely funny and incisive as she recounts the now infamous incident at a party in Aspen in which a Very Important Man interrupts and talks over her to explain a Very Important Book he thinks she should read—which it turns out she wrote. Men explain things to women, whether or not they know what they're talking about. Solnit astutely identifies and politicizes this experience, which is already familiar to so many women. Writing through a variety of seemlessly diverse topics in the essays that follow, she traces the contours of a culture in which women continue to be silenced and otherwise made to disappear.
Roz Chast's memoir is a deeply human look at her relationship with her aging parents. At turns angry and sad, but always filtered through Chast's trademark humor, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? articulates the concerns that many of us are (or soon will be) experiencing with our own parents. This is the rare book that manages to successfully pull off what it risks. It's got the feel of a classic.
Rivka Galchen's much-anticipated new book is a sly and wondrous love letter--and maybe Dear John letter, too--to her literary forebears. These ten stories, which each reframe a classic story by writers as unalike as James Thurber and Jorge Luis Borges (among others), demonstrate Galchen's subtle and wry sense of humor, her keen sense of psychology, and her lyrical prose. Moving from the mundane to the surreal and everywhere in-between, American Innovations is a brilliant feat of imagination by one of the best literary minds in contemporary fiction.
I recommend it enthusiastically. Really, ask me about it. You'll have a hard time getting me to shut up.
I am not generally one to be drawn to novels that can be described as “magical” or “mystical,” and especially not “feel-good,” but all of those words can be applied to The Plover, along with “salty,” and even “brilliant.” The Plover is the simple story of a man getting onto his little boat and heading out to sea to escape the world, but the world follows him out and keeps him company. It is a beautiful novel filled with extraordinary characters who will carry you away on a journey of solitude, of mysticism and exploration.
Books like this don't come along very often, so dive in and enjoy each pleasant surprise.
In the life of an independent bookseller, there are a few “rights of passage” discoveries before we truly earn our stripes: Jack Black’s You Can’t Win, The Wasp Factory by Ian Banks and heck, everything by Jim Thompson. But when I came up at Green Apple, some 20+ years ago, nothing rung my bell quite as loudly as Kem Nunn’s surf-mystery, Tapping the Source which was originally published in 1984. And almost better than the joy of discovery is when that ‘cult author’ stays the course, and manages to refine their craft into a wholly unique style—much the way that Kem Nunn has done with Chance, his first novel in 10 years!
Set in San Francisco, Chance is sharp and gritty noir, involving multiple personality disorder, rare furniture forgeries, abusive and corrupt police detectives, sexy sexy sex, and the forensic psychiatrist who delves deep into the dark side in an effort to hold all of this together.
Like a drunken tryst between the film ‘Ghost Dog’ and the dark novels of Georges Simenon, Chance is a novel of bad decisions, made for the right reasons, and the heavy-duty repercussions of messing with the wrong people. You will dig it—I guarantee it!
Jenny Offill's remarkably crafted Dept. of Speculation is a moving story of love, art, parenthood, and infidelity. Narrated by "the wife," the novel charts the arc of a love affair, from first blush to eventual dissipation, along the way touching on all manner of subjects, from sleep deprivation to the usefulness of art. Full of insight and wry humor, the novel's impact far outstrips its modest size. It'll stick with you long after you've finished.
In On Such a Full Sea we are plunged into a futuristic America where Chinese communities spring up in abandoned cities like B-Mor after environmental catastrophe renders much of China uninhabitable. The residents of B-Mor, sealed off from the crime-infested “outside counties,” live in relative peace, with no reason to disturb the status quo. Until Fan, a diver in the tanks that house B-Mor’s fish supply, sets off to find her missing lover. This is Fan’s story: part myth, part dystopian tale, part love story. Chang-rae Lee’s lyrical novel immerses you in a world that captivates the imagination and like the best dystopian tales, forces you to reconsider the political and environmental tides washing against the contemporary world.
As starkly sarcastic and manly as you'd expect from our favorite mustachioed, woodworking Parks and Rec star, these "fundamentals for delicious living" include (but are not limited to): performing, drinking, loving, and worshiping Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, song, and theater.
Nestled between stories about his life in theater, woodworking, and growing up in rural Minooka, Illinois, are essential guides such as "How To Be A Man" (eat steak, drink whiskey, punch a socialist) and how to "Be Smart While Getting Stupid" (a healthy approach to mind-altering substances like beer or pork rinds). These guides even include drawings of Offerman performing tasks from these guides, original poems about his wife (Megan Mullally) and, of course, paddling your own canoe.
In his own words, "each story comes with a delicious fundamental—advice about living life that I hope you'll find useful...how an average human dipsh*t like myself, relying solely on warped individuality and a little elbow grease, can actually rise from a simple life of relative poverty to one of prosperity, measured in American dollars and Italian band saws, sure, but more importantly, laughter, wood shavings, and kisses."
"At least one day out of the year all musicians should just put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington." - Miles Davis
A little ways into this book, I got rid of my other books on Duke Ellington. Teachout's book is that good. Duke Ellington was a notoriously private man, allowing very few people to see the person behind the legend. By peeling away the layers and stories, Teachout succeeds in giving us a look at a flawed human being who gave us some of the 20th century's greatest music. I had more admiration for Duke after reading this biography than I did when I started. (I consider him to be the greatest composer of the 20th century.)
Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington not only gets as close as we're ever going to get to the "real" Duke Ellington, but it's also excellent at placing his music in its historical context. Teachout, who wrote an excellent biography of Louis Armstrong several years ago, is emerging as one of the best jazz biographers.
I picked up this book because I love David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas and more. When I started his introduction I had no idea just what I was in for. Naoki Higashida is a 13 year old boy with autism. Although Naoki is unable to communicate verbally, his mother and teacher have devised a system that allows him to slowly form words and sentences that evolve into poems and stories--which resulted in The Reason I Jump. This is a heartfelt and touching account of Naoki trying to describe why he might react a certain way in different situations. That itself is pretty intense, but the beauty of this book lies in Naoki's understanding of and connection with nature. I can see why David Mitchell and his wife Ka Yoshida wanted to pass this book on to the English-speaking world, as it should be translated into every language. This book doesn't just open your eyes to what it is like to be be autistic but what it is like to be human.
There have been many histories written about the transformation of San Francisco from a muddy hamlet of 800 people in 1848 into one of the world's great metropolises. What makes this one special is Kamiya's synthesizing of the personal memoir with a walking tour of the historic, the geographic and the geologic, all rolled together in a witty and accessible style. Kamiya not only obviously spent countless hours deep in the library stacks doing diligent research, but he must also have worn out several pairs of shoes walking the far-flung corners, alleys, dirt paths and hills of San Francisco. Along the way he points out the little remnants of the past--buried stream beds and old trails that became our modern roads; local characters past and present; spots where the old has been replaced by the new without being completely erased. Even if you think you know all you need to about this cool gray city of love, Gary Kamiya will surprise you with his passionate mash note to the city of San Francisco.
This book is not about the invention of murder so much as the sensationalizing of crime in Victorian England. Flanders retells gruesome stories of many different types of murder, both famous and obscure: from Jack the Ripper and Sweeney Todd to Burke and Hare's body-snatching business in Edinburgh. The British loved murder. Not the actual act itself, but the telling: You'll see murders through multiple editions of newspapers hawked on the streets, bestselling novels, stage plays, musicals, and even puppet shows. Not to mention the birth of the detective novel. If you think that obsession with and media saturation of murder is a modern phenomenon (Hello Nancy Grace), get ready to have your mind changed. With an irresistible cast of swindlers, forgers, poisoners, the mad, the bad and the utterly dangerous, The Invention of Murder is both a mesmerizing tale of crime and punishment, and history at its most readable.
Dreadful is a thoroughly researched, sympathetic portrayal of a talented, mercurial, heavy-drinking, and ultimately tragic novelist who wrote one important book.
John Horne Burns's 1947 masterpiece--The Gallery--was praised by every critic and WWII novelist--Hemingway, Michener, Vidal. It was a revelation at the time, illustrating the confrontation between often obtuse US soldiers and the citizens of Naples. One landmark (at the time) chapter illustrates the personalities of a Napoli gay bar frequented by gay soldiers.
Margolick's scholarship, aided by Burns's prodigious correspondence, will make you cringe at how many wrong decisions one man can make--literary success for Burns was followed by burning bridges with critics, his peers, and his day job, then followed by self-immolation through alcoholism just shy of his 37th birthday.
This re-examination of Burns and The Gallery is especially prescient today in light of new research around American GI's treatment of Europeans in the months following V-day. John Horne Burns and his landmark novel deserve this valuable book.
All of the (rave) reviews you will read about The Son will call it a "western" and make comparisons to the works of Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy. These comparisons are right, but The Son is also much more than that; it is nothing less than a micro-history of the settlement of the North American continent, as told through the bloody, rapacious story of five generations of one Texas family. Beginning with the butchering of patriarch Eli McCullough's family by Comanches in 1849, and ending with oil Baroness Jeanne Anne's story in 2012, we follow the family as it grows in wealth and power, sometimes honestly, but more usually not. There aren't many 576 page novels that you wish were longer, but as I neared the end of this epic tome, I began to grow nostalgic for it even as the remaining pages were counting down. The Son is a great book.
Tom Drury is generally under-appreciated, and he's a favorite of several Green Applers, including yours truly and my (writerly) wife. His prose is spare and precise, his characters all lovingly rendered. His latest, Pacific, is full of drive, following two distinct story lines, both edged with mystery and longing, sorrow and hope. The plot lines never totally connect, but you don't care because you so love the characters, despite (or because of?) their flaws. It's one of those books that's tough to describe. But you should just trust me and Green Apple and Yiyun Li, and buy it, and read it, and bring your questions on May 21 to ask the author
Rachel Kushner, of Telex from Cuba (2008) fame, reaffirms her remarkable ability to capture readers with The Flamethrowers, a novel about a young female artist newly arrived in New York City. Upon her arrival from the Midwest, Reno (a reference to her place of birth) finds herself stuck on the fringe of the artistic culture of SoHo and the East Village. An affair with Sandro Valera, an artist and heir to a fortune built upon motorcycles, draws her deeper into his world and ultimately to his family's estate in Italy. After learning of her lover's true nature, Reno leaves the protection that Sandro's wealth affords her and becomes caught up in the socio-political revolution engulfing Italy at the time. This atmosphere of violence and poverty allows Kushner's vivid examination of gender, culture and class to speak simultaneously about the 1970s and today.
Reader, meet your next book club book. Schroder has a clear hook: Eric Schroder (who has gone by Eric Kennedy since his youth trying to fit in as an immigrant), has kidnapped his six-year-old daughter during a parental visit. It's a week on the road and on the lam. Beyond the compelling hook, though, this novel explores all kinds of complexity: what it means to be a good parent; what makes us "American;" and so on. Schroder is both a page-turner and a lyrical meditation on parental love. Both of Gaige's previous books have been Green Apple favorites, but now she has really hit her stride with this triumph of voice
We here at Green Apple hopped on the Zambra bandwagon back in 2008 when his elegant novella Bonsai was published. Five years and two books later, it's with a sense of pride that we see the young Chilean writer fully hitting his stride with Ways of Going Home, a lean, reflective novel about what it means to grow up untroubled in troubled times. Written in his signature style -- blending genres while coming and going from his main narrative -- Zambra crafts a powerful story about the interplay between History (with a capital H) and personal history. A poignant, stick-with-you-after-reading book from the best Chilean writer since Roberto Bolaño.
Recently enshrined Nobel laureate Mo Yan's latest novel is a rip-roarin', gut-bustin', greasy meal of a book. Pow! chronicles the rough and tumble childhood of Luo Xiaotong, a perpetually hungry boy growing up in Slaughterhouse Village, a place where meat is king and looks are deceiving. Little Ziaotong, who's already been called Mo Yan's Candide, would like nothing better than to overcome his insatiable desire for the pleasures of the flesh (both cooked and, um, uncooked), but a whole army of forces, some of which appear to be supernatural, conspire against him, which leads to some of the wildest scenes in contemporary fiction. Pow! is a hilariously slapstick affair, salted with subtle critique of a corrupt government and well-seasoned with sly satire. It's a resounding confirmation of Mo Yan's place among the best writers of our time.
Proposing that diversity is what connects us all, Solomon looks at a fundamental dilemma of parenting: to what extent parents should accept their children for who they are, and to what extent they should help them become their best selves. He explores the cultures and lives of those who have fallen "far from the tree:" deaf children of hearing parents, dwarfs, children born of rape, and so on.
This is one of those big idea books that can either totally consume a few weeks of your free time or be read in chunks over months. Either way, you will be left with a new appreciation for the human experience in all its diversity.
If the best books are those that make you itch for something new--or, in this case, something as ancient as walking--Robert Macfarlane's poetic travel memoir is certainly one of the best books I've read in a long time. Tracing his ramblings across moors and seas, up mountains, and along meandering paths, Macfarlane describes in lush, precise prose a natural (and human) world that reveals itself leisurely, step by step. Full of remarkable scenes and a memorable cast of characters, The Old Ways brings to mind recent memoirs like Cheryl Strayed's Wild and classic nature writing a la Peter Matthiessen. I recommend it with only one caveat: read it with your hiking boots on; it'll make you want to get up and go.
This novel is a wild romp through our fair city, from the Mission to Ocean Beach. Enjoy the ride!
While it may be true that Dog Stars is Peter Heller's first novel, within moments of beginning this haunting work, it became obvious to me that this is no first book. Heller possesses a professionalism and grace that is rarely encountered on the page, and his deft balance of the poetic and the painful, the sublime and the savage, even the living and the dead, well...it impressed me in ways that I've not encountered in fiction before.
The term "post-apocalyptic" will be bandied about quite often in regard to this work, which is a shame, as I see it more like a dystopic Garden of Eden love story. Or a buddy tale. Or the story of a boy and his dog. Or a gripping outdoor adventure yarn.
Yes, there was an apocalypse, but not on the pages of Dog Stars -- this book is alive in a very special way, and it will touch the heart of anyone who reads it.
Jess Walter's novel Beautiful Ruins, as the title suggests, is the story of what happens to a group of people who are all trying to re-capture what once or never was. It begins with the filming of the 1962 film Cleopatra, in a small town in Italy where a young starlet has been hidden away as part of the scheme by a master manipulator of Hollywood lore. The novel then leaps around in time, from that small Italian town to present day Los Angeles with several stops in between, touching several apparently unconnected lives with a thread that it eventually uses to gather them seamlessly together. The result is what can only be described as a big story, one that would seem to have jumped right off the silver screen inhabited by the likes of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton (a character in the book), were it not for the fact that it's Walter's undeniable skill as a novelist that makes what could just be Hollywood lore feel true.
[I first read this book when it was originally published in Canada in 2010. Here is a review that I wrote shortly thereafter].
Sheila Heti's How Should A Person Be? is exactly what its title implies: an inquiry into how to live and how to do it well. Through a fictionalized account of her personal life, Heti explores the ways in which self-doubt, capriciousness, and the ego are tied to one's ability to live a creative life in the modern age. Yes, I know. This sounds so serious. Or maybe it doesn't. Either way, this novel is a rare gem that effectively combines philosophical musings with an absorbing and funny narrative, all without being pretentious. How Should A Person Be? is about what it means to make art, friends, and ultimately what it means to be human. I raced through it over the course of a few days, after which it stuck with me for weeks. I even read passages of it aloud to a friend, something I rarely do.
There have been some changes made to this, the US edition, which truly enhance the novel's original form. It's been almost two years since my initial reading of How Should A Person Be?, and I am still excited about the book. In fact, since that time, I've continued to ponder over and occasionally re-read selections from it. Each time, my heart aches a little more, and I learn something new about myself and about the world. I suppose one can't ask for much more than that.
David Talbot is a literary razor, slicing the torrid tales of San Francisco's history out of the fog, out of the past, and placing them firmly in our current cultural milieu. In The Season of the Witch, Salon Magazine founder Talbot delivers a book that is such a breezy read, that the decades fly from the pages as if caught in a Pacific wind. Diggers, hippies and Hell's Angels; murdered politicians and crooked cops; transgender vaudevillian performers, race riots and the SLA -- all come springing back to life like a deal with the devil. And if you don't know the difference between the Zebra and the Zodiac, then you definitely need to read this book.
Fifty years ago, every county in the nation had an almshouse, a place for the care of those who are sick and poor. Now San Francisco's Laguna Honda is the last of its kind. When Victoria Sweet began working there more than 20 years ago, she expected her tenure to be a short one. But she found that at Laguna Honda, she could practice a different type of medicine than she would have been allowed in a regular hospital, what she came to call "slow medicine." God's Hotel is filled with amazing stories of this type of care: of the illnesses and recovery (and often relapse) of the patients; of Dr. Sweet's own spiritual journey; and of the funky old hospital itself, with its chicken coop and its open wards, as it struggles to retain its identity in a battle with efficiency experts who've never looked a patient in the eye. This book is filled with wisdom, humor, and even a few miracles.
You will probably be hearing about this book everywhere. Believe the hype. (e.g. Sunday New York Times Book Review, SF Chronicle, GoodReads). I, for one, am willing to put my reputation of 18.5 years as a bookseller on the line for this one. You will love it.
Wild is, at its base, a memoir of a struggling young woman and her challenging solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail (1,100 miles of it!). But it's so much more--full of heart, humor, hope, and humanity.
Still need convincing? My wife (a writer and former bookseller) and I almost never read the same book (it seems inefficient to us--is that weird?). In rare instances, we will more or less force the other to read something--she had me read Behind the Beautiful Forevers (which is excellent), and she read (and loved) Wild. So it's not a guy book or a women's book--it's just a great book.
"Oh what a gift it is -- to see ourselves as others do." Mirage is one of the most intense reading experiences I've had recently. In fact, I found myself rationing how many pages to read at one time, because I could only read it for the first time once. Although this book shares a border with The Man in the High Castle, it's very much its own beast. Mirage is not so much alternative history, but a warped, cracked mirror held up to this country's actions. It asks: If the circumstances were reversed, what then?
Girlchild is an unconventional novel, but guaranteed to appeal to all. Tupelo Hassman has created a dark and heartbreaking story in Rory Dawn Hendrix, the unforgettable narrator. Still close to her mother and grandmother, Rory is set on getting out of the Calle ("Just North of Reno and just South of nowhere is a town full of trailers and the front doors of the dirtiest ones open onto the Calle").
There are great turns of phrases and breaks from traditional narrative that are all seamlessly woven together to create this heartbreaking novel. So urgent is the writing and captivating is the style that you are forced to read straight through to the end, and even after it was over I could only sit there and think about the story I had just read. This is a powerful debut that makes me wish that Hassman had many other novels that I could move onto. Hassman is definitely a novelist whose career I will follow from this moment on.
Citizens of North Korea not only don't enjoy freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, they truly don't have access to freedom of thought, closed off as they are from the outside world and force fed a steady diet of propaganda. In The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson tells the story of Pak Jun Do, raised in an orphanage, in a country where an orphan's only value is their labor and the expend-ability of their lives. This brilliant, thoroughly-researched novel imagines life in that country, from citizens swept off the street and forced to "volunteer" their labor, to "criticism sessions," to the horrors of the gulag, where dying prisoners are drained of their blood. But far from being a mere documentary of life in the DPRK, this is a hugely entertaining, often hilarious novel of switched identity, casual cruelty, and collective delusion.
Adam Johnson has said (I'm paraphrasing) that not every person with a story to tell has the skill to write it, so writers must step in and tell their stories for them. With The Orphan Master's Son, he has succeeded at this task brilliantly.
There are as many interpretations of Moby-Dick as there are splintered harpoons in the white whale's scarred skin, all of which tell a different story, none of which tell quite the whole story. Matt Kish's interpretation takes the form of an illustration for every page (all 552 of 'em) and is both a singular reading of Melville's epic and a piece of monumental art in itself. Like all imaginative readers, Kish creates from his voyages in search of the whale his own vision, referring back to the original, but full of its own mythology and the cultural influences of the 150 years since the publication of the original. As such, Moby-Dick in Pictures provides us with a fresh way of viewing a classic (and is likely to become a classic in its own right), reminding us that great literature both acts upon the present and is reimagined by it.
Paul La Farge's latest novel is, essentially, a chronicle of failure: it's about airplanes that never make if off the ground; a religious sect who awaited an uplifting rapture that never came; and what turned out to be the false promise of the dot com boom, when it seemed the sky was the limit for the possibilities of emerging technologies. Although a book of failures may not promise the most inspirational reading, La Farge manages, through his winsome narrator, to humorously and deftly weave together these (and other) strands to create a picture of the turn of the 21st century--set right here in San Francisco--that feels as true and fantastic as the world itself.
The Night Circus is the story of two young magicians performing in a mysterious circus that appears seemingly from nowhere, and the supernaturally high stakes of the battle of imagination in which they find themselves. A story that both embodies and deals in magic in the most thorough of ways, not only is Morgenstern's debut a tale of magic and those who perform it, the writing itself -- the rich descriptions, the larger-than-life characters, and the artful unfolding on the plot -- is a joy. With equal nods to the wit of Shakespeare and the drama of Cirque du Soleil, The Night Circus is nonetheless a world unto itself.
Are you freakin' kidding me? A direct quote from Ghostbusters, the lyrics from "Dead Man's Party," a Muppet Show reference, and an Atari 2600 reference ALL IN THE FIRST FOUR PAGES OF THE BOOK?!
But seriously, folks, this debut novel from the man who brought us the 2008 film Fanboys delivers the geekdom, and how. Not one, but three Green Apple employees give their endorsement for this nerdfest of epic proportions (which explains a lot about us, really). To get an idea of what this unique take on a quest novel is like, take one part Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one part 9th level wizard, douse it all heavily with MTV (when MTV actually showed videos), thoroughly mix in every John Hughes movie that features at least three actors from the Brat Pack, add a few dashes of the truck sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and sprinkle with Monty Python, all while listening to your totally 80s mix-tape compilations and then you will begin to comprehend the treasure that is this book. And like I said, that's just the first chapter.
As you may expect, the ruffians from Grossman's earlier novel--The Magicians--are back, and they are dead set on setting down their drinks, putting aside their petty squabbles, and keeping their magical wonderland safe from a brand-new cast of nemeses: villains like Dryads, clock-trees, and even a speaking Seeing Hare that foretells a future brimming of "Death and destruction...disappointment and despair." Oof. Sounds to me like our band of mystical explorers needs to find those seven keys, pronto, and save magic once and for all.
Follow Quentin and the gang on another epic adventure between this world and the shadow-lands. Meet Julia, a tough as nails magician from the underground, resplendent with her 500 tattoos (take that, girl with dragon). Revisit the land, lore, and locals that you fell in love with in The Magicians--you're a couple of years older now, and so are they.
In Ann Patchett's cinematic page-turner, we accompany 42-year old Marina Singh as she leaves the predictable life of a Minnesotan pharmaceutical researcher to delve--at the behest of her boss and lover--into the daunting Brazilian jungle to learn how a colleague died when he himself ventured on a recognizance mission for their company. Both their quests involve locating and questioning the elusive, esteemed Annick Swenson, a simultaneously compelling and repulsive doctor secretly developing drugs aimed to benefit millions of suffering people. While Marina experiences extreme physical and psychological discomfort in the jarringly wondrous rabbit hole that is the Amazon, her unexpected inner journey leads her to a life regained through confrontations with moral and social issues, skewed self-perceptions, cannibals, and anacondas.
Two brothers are assassins, rogues--the mere mention of their names strikes fear in those unlucky enough to cross them. The older brother is the trigger-happy lead man with bad manners and a weakness for brandy. He won't cross a hexed threshold to protect his own blood. The younger brother prefers mint tooth powder to fennel, goes on a diet to (hopefully) win the affections of a lady, and is willing to risk a curse on his soul to protect a horse he isn't really fond of. They bicker, argue, steal, fight, and kill their way to San Francisco (a chapter with the best description of the City I've ever read: both historical and ironically contemporary). This western will you leave you busting a gut.
Francisco Goldman's Say Her Name is an astonishingly beautiful kaleidoscope of love and loss, set in Brooklyn and Mexico City, before and after the sudden death of his wife. With unabashed clarity, Goldman strips bare his four year relationship with Aura, his picture-perfect bride, granting readers a voyeuristic inventory of their time together. When her life is unexpectedly cut short on an idyllic beach holiday, Goldman's suffering becomes our own. When Aura's family places the blame squarely on Francisco, the shock of her death slams headlong into indignation. And when Francisco himself wishes to die, we also die a bit inside. As a reader, I have never encountered a book with such insight into what it is to love, and to how we can survive when those we care for do not. As an aspiring writer, I am in awe at the lightness, humor and grace of his prose. As a bookseller, this book is a grand gift - I am confident that anyone who enjoys reading will also sense the rare magic in Say Her Name, and will be moved, the same as I was. As a husband, this book chills me to the bone. Say Her Name is a book that cries to be read, screams to be shared, and whispers to be remembered.
When the family alligator wrestling business starts to go under due to a lack of tourism to your haunted swamp island, and your sister keeps running off to have torrid love affairs with dead men, and your mom won't respond on the Ouija board and a mysterious man appears to collect for his unsolicited services as a buzzard exterminator, sometimes you've got to take the rudder and venture to the bottom of things, so to speak. And, if this sweet grimey world you're navigating is the creation of Karen Russell, you know you're in for an other/under-worldly experience that is at once fantastic and heartbreakingly real. Swamplandia! is everything its premise promises and more.
There are books for which the words "gem-like" and "compact" and "precise" apply, but West of Here isn't one of those. West of Here is: Epic. Sprawling. Visceral. Lusty. Big in every way -- it spans years and generations. Filled with characters who will stay with you long after the book is done, including the rugged wilderness of the Olympic penninsula itself, from Klallam Indian to modern-day Sasquatch hunter. Along the way there is love and blood and birth and death and human vs. nature. The story takes us from the settlers -- who first dammed a wild river -- to their descendents -- who want to tear the dam down to preserve the salmon run. The settlers' impulse to conquer the wild is set against the modern notion that it is nature that needs protection from humans. I know it's a cliche, but this is that rare almost-500 page tome that, when you get to the last page, odds are you will quietly mourn the departure of these characters from your life, and then quietly turn the book over and begin the adventure all over again.
Convincing you to buy a book about the history of cancer and the search for its prevention and cure is either going to be easy or very hard. For those already interested, all I will add is that The Emperor of All Maladies is expertly researched, clearly narrated, and hopeful, if realistic. It's everything you hope for in a non-fiction narrative. For those not interested at first glance, I just have to say that this is one of the most compelling non-fiction books I've read in years. A page-turner chock full of scientists, discovery, failure, "victims," genomics, politics, moral quandaries and a persistently evasive disease that will, alas, afflict one in three American women and one in two American men in their lifetimes. Knowledge is power, right? Get your knowledge here. This book is fantastic (and totally readable for the curious layperson without being dumbed down). My highest personal recommendation.