I rarely fall this deeply in love with a book. Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything, a classic in its day, is about several young women trying to make it in the male-cominated publishing world of the early/mid 1950s in New York City. It has often been compared to Sex and the City, and these characters do navigate love, friendship, and careers in similar ways. But the most enchanting part of this book is the way it captures a specific moment in American history.
Sabrina is the story about how the family and friends of a young woman deal with her gruesome and highly-publicized kidnapping and its aftermath. More obliquely, Sabrina is about how easily tragedy can be exploited in the internet age, and how disputatious conspiracy theorists have clawed their way into the mainstream public discourse when it comes to these tragedies, often providing “alternative” explanations for them that add a whole new dimension to the pain of the families. This story is brilliantly wrought, beautiful, and told with subtlety and sobriety. It deserves the high praise it has been getting.
Crudo is the debut novel of Olivia Laing, a culture writer for The Guardian, and author of three previous books of nonfiction. The main character of this novel is an amalgam of the dead avant-garde writer Kathy Acker and Laing herself. At forty years old, “Kathy” is about to get married for the first time to a famous poet thirty years her senior. Unfolding all around her in real time is the political chaos and profound strangeness of the Brexit/Trump era, all mediated and experienced through the social media she engages with compulsively. This book is a stylistically bold and clever negotiation of vulnerability, independence, aging, and politics in the bizarre cultural epoch we are living in.
Swimming Home is about a family vacation in the French Riviera that gets interrupted by a strange visitor named Kitty Finch. Kitty unstable and seemingly starving herself. She is an amateur poet and an amateur botanist who paints her nails green. And she has an uncanny ability to bring out the darkness in this family. In this novel, Deborah Levy explores the precarious space between creativity and insanity. Her writing is penetrating and deeply evocative. She has an acute sense for detail, creating a novel that somehow has a tone that is both languid and manic. The way that the novel deals with desire-- as a timeless, carnal, healing, and simultaneously dooming force, is what ties it all together.
I'm not typically a binge-reader, but I couldn't help it with The Seas. I spent two enchanting days in this strange and singular world, a world soaked in saltwater and alcohol, a world different than our own, but only when looking at certain angles. This is a meditation on how desire acts on bodies, how it has the power to invade bodies and distort them into inhuman shapes (like mermaids), and also how it emphasizes corporeality at the same time. Hunt's language is original, arresting, and richly metaphoric. I can't remember the last time a book stayed with me for this long.
I'm a Jew who loves a good Christmas story. This being said, while this book does take place during Christmas, it is moreso a story about the warmth of family and community during the holidays. When the reclusive landord of the Vanderbeeker family threatens to evict them from the house they grew up in just days after Christmas for no obvious reason, the five clever siblings devise a series of schemes involving most of their neighborhood to save their house. I don't read too much kid-lit, but this book got me. It is sweet, joyful, clever, and beautifully written. I recommend it as a cozy Fall or Winter read (with a warm blanket and hot chocolate).
Elif Batuman's debut novel perfectly captures all of the small and daily devastations one experiences when 18 and in love for the first time. More than this, The Idiot shows how absurd and complex the language the mediates our experience can be. Batuman, who loves Russian literature, once expressed in an interview a desire for her novels to be "long and pointless," but I couldn't put this down. A crazy-smart coming of age story.
Reading a book by Patti Smith is, for me, always an aesthetic experience. Her compelling use of language allows me to enter her worlds easily and fully. Devotion especially left an impression on me for weeks. This is part meditation on craft, part diary, and part Nabokov-esque narrative. Smith weaves them together expertly and beautifully. If you'd like to hear a thousand more reasons why I love this book (and Patti), come find me.
White Noise is a postmodern classic that highlights the many strains of postmodernism: the aestheticization of violence, the breakdown of language, the merging of consumer products with identities. Its also a pragmatic love story, and a way to conceptualize what parenting might look like during an apocalyptic event. I had a hard time putting it down.
This book was written during the Harlem Renaissance in 1931, but the aim of its critique is just as germane today, and echoed in films like Get Out and Sorry to Bother You. Part Afrofuturism, part satire, this novel lampoons both the KKK and the NAACP. It highlights the biological artificiality of race, while also making clear the very real ways it acts as a social force. Mostly, this book is hilarious.