Fiction

  • Enigma Variations

    André Aciman

    A novel that takes its name from an Edward Elgar orchestral piece, the variations here are different romances from fragmented eras of the narrator Paul’s life. Though the novel progresses linearly, each chapter really exists as its own story with only passing references to the others. Characters mentioned in passing in one story may come to the forefront in another before sliding to the background again later.

    The opening chapter “First Love” feels much different from the rest, focused on Paul’s return to an Italian island where his family had a summer home in his youth, a house that later burned down. Though he is ostensibly there to finally see what remains of the property, he finds himself seeking...more

  • The Idiot

    Elif Batuman

    Essentially a novel in two parts, the first comprises Selin’s first year at Harvard in the year 1995, as Selin chooses to study linguistics and Russian, meets a Hungarian mathematician, Ivan, begins emailing Ivan, and develops a crush on him through their correspondence. They have an awkward flirtation, being painfully unable to have a conversation outside of their strange emails. The second part covers the summer when Selin travels to Paris with her friend Svetlana and then Hungary to teach English in a small town, which she basically only does to try to see Ivan, even though this seems ill-advised. The book is episodic, focused on the humor and poignancy of banal moments. Usually that sounds like something I am...more

  • Transit

    Rachel Cusk

    Rachel Cusk’s previous novel Outline was an unexpected pleasure, so it was also a nice surprise to find out the book was the first in a trilogy — Transit is the second installment. This book follows a similar structure, where each chapter is centered around a conversation between Faye, the heart of the story, and people she meets. Whereas in the last book, she was traveling and the conversations were focused more on the other people, this one has her at home, albeit a new home after divorcing her husband. (A home that needs to be renovated extensively, while the tenants in the downstairs flat protest at even moderate sound.)

    In some ways perhaps I love this book less than Outline,...more

  • White Tears

    Hari Kunzru

    Hari Kunzru is a British-born writer and has only lived in the US since 2008, yet he weaves a tale about the roots of appropriation in our culture in this stunning literary thriller. Two college friends, both white, bond over a shared obsession with old blues music. Carter is from a rich, well-connected family with the money to set up a recording studio full of “authentic” analog equipment, and Seth is an introspective nerd with a habit of wandering the city recording ambient noise. By chance Seth picks up audio of a man singing a haunting tune on the street, which the duo mixes to sound like a genuine blues tune digitized from an old 78 record. Carter shares...more

  • 4 3 2 1

    Paul Auster

    After establishing the parental background and birth of Archie Ferguson, 4 3 2 1 promptly splits off into four directions, four possible paths of this one person. While certain aspects of each life are constant — all four Archies have an interest in writing and most are attracted to same woman — there’s a fair amount of variance in each version and how the constants are played out. Rooted in the banalities of each life, the concept is compelling but sometimes bogged down in too much detail. Archie #1’s experience working on Columbia’s newspaper during the 1968 Vietnam War protests, and to a lesser extent Archie #4’s exposure to the Newark race riots, bordered on a slog-level amount of detail, and I’m not sure for what purpose...more

  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing

    Madeleine Thien

    What was a zero anyway? A zero signified nothing, all it did was tell you nothing about nothing. Still, wasn’t zero also something meaningful, a number in and of itself? In jianpu notation, zero indicated a caesura, a pause or rest of indeterminate length. Did time that went uncounted, unrecorded, still qualify as time? If zero was both everything and nothing, did an empty life have exactly the same weight as a full life? Was zero like the desert, both finite and infinite?

    A sprawling novel centered around two generations of an extended family — two closely connected families, really — from the oppression of China’s Cultural Revolution through the violence of the student protests in 1989 into the modern day where some characters...more

  • Things We Lost in the Fire

    Mariana Enríquez

    Beautifully eerie stories set across Argentina pairing the darkness of modern life, with its extreme poverty, violence, and crime, to the murkiness of otherworldly terrors. It’s been almost two months since I read this collection, and it has stuck with me in a way that I know I will want to read this again. Strangely the only story that didn’t grab me is the eponymous “Things We Lost in the Fire,” in which women self-immolate to protect themselves from domestic violence. But having loved the rest of the book, maybe I read it in an off moment and will see it differently on a re-read.

    This is the first book of Enríquez’s to be translated to English, and I hope...more

  • Amiable with Big Teeth

    Claude McKay

    The back story of how this novel came to be published is fascinating: originally written and edited in 1941, it was never published and was essentially lost in the archives until a graduate student at Columbia University found a copy of an essentially finished manuscript among the papers of another writer in 2009. The New York Times reported on this discovery and the process to authenticate the manuscript in 2012. Now finally the book has made it into print.

    Amiable with Big Teeth captures a later point in Harlem’s Renaissance, at the time when Ethiopia was invaded by Italian fascists. It’s a satirical look at the political maneuverings of activist groups and differing perspectives of race and class relations,...more

  • Fugitive Pieces

    Anne Michaels

    The shadow past is shaped by everything that never happened. Invisible, it melts the present like rain through karst. A biography of longing. It steers us like magnetism, a spirit torque. This is how one becomes undone by a smell, a word, a place, the photo of a mountain of shoes. By love that closes its mouth before calling a name.
             I did not witness the most important events of my life. My deepest story must be told by a blind man, a prisoner of sound. From behind a wall, from underground. From the corner of a small house on a small island that juts like a bone from the skin of the sea.

    While I was reading...more

  • By Blood

    Ellen Ullman

    A disgraced college professor moves to San Francisco in the late summer of 1974 while his school investigates him for an inappropriate relationship with a student. Hoping to work on a series lectures during his exile, he rents the cheapest office he can find and describes a dreary building with “begrimed gargoyles crouched beneath the parapet, their eyes eaten away by time.” In the marble lobby, the elevators are overseen by bronze cherubs whose eyes circle to watch the cars rising and falling. The floors are inhabited by an array of tenants behind frosted glass doors, and he settles in to begin working. After a couple weeks, he arrives to find a new whirring noise and discovers he rented the...more

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