Fiction

  • 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 there...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, as...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 this...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

  • Southland

    Nina Revoyr

    Stretching across the 1940s, 1960s, and 1990s, Southland encompasses an impressive breadth of cultural history without overreaching. After the death of Jackie Ishida’s grandfather in 1994, her aunt finds a box of old papers that cracks open a door to long-hidden family secrets and tasks Jackie with sorting them out. Almost immediately, her quest brings her to Jimmy Lanier who reveals that during the Watts riots in 1965, four black boys were murdered in her grandfather’s store — an event her grandparents never revealed to their adolescent children.

    One of the boys was Jimmy’s older cousin Curtis, who he adored unreservedly, and the suppression of the crime was particularly tough for him to accept. Together Jackie and Jimmy work to uncover the...more

  • Ishmael

    Daniel Quinn

    While technically fiction, this novel is almost entirely a conversation between a man and the gorilla Ishmael (who communicates telepathically), and it pretty much reads like a lecture on philosophies of ecology. The ideas are interesting, focused on Ishmael’s division of humans into two groups he calls Takers and Leavers — the Takers being those who followed the Agricultural Revolution through the Industrial Revolution to today’s world of possibly irreversible climate change.

    Many critics of this book see Ishmael’s glorification of the Leavers, represented by more primitive, tribal cultures, as unrealistic and even inaccurate. The argument, for example, that they have always lived in balance with their environment, never depleting resources unlike their Taker counterparts, turns out to be easily refuted. Others...more

  • Grief is the Thing with Feathers

    Max Porter

    After the sudden death of a wife and mother, a father and two sons struggle in their mourning. To their rescue comes an oversized Crow, apparently a manifestation of Ted Hughes’s poetic creation, acting as a kind of counselor. (The dad is a Hughes scholar; the author Max Porter is a casual scholar himself.) The book rotates between the voices of the Dad, Crow, and Boys, the Crow parts often devolving into cryptic crow word play. The title is also a play on poetry, swapping Emily Dickinson’s hope for grief. (If there’s a meaningful connection between Emily Dickinson and Ted Hughes, I seem to have missed it.)

    As a portrait of the anguish of loss, Porter captures the all-consuming nature of...more

  • Another Brooklyn

    Jacqueline Woodson

    I watched my brother watch the world, his sharp, too-serious brow furrowing down in both angst and wonder. Everywhere we looked, we saw the people trying to dream themselves out. As though there was someplace other than this place. As though there was another Brooklyn.

    Beautiful, poetic novel built around memories of growing up in Bushwick in the 1970s. August returns to NYC as an adult, and a chance meeting on the subway brings back her adolescent years when she first arrived with her father and brother from Tennessee. “This is memory,” she intones repeatedly as she remembers their father being too nervous to let them out on their own, so they viewed their neighborhood held captive through the windows,...more

  • The Underground Railroad

    Colson Whitehead

    While Colson Whitehead’s novel is a fictional account of slavery that bends historical details, the cruelties and heartbreak are undeniably accurate. Cora is the center of the story, a woman who is an outcast in her plantation life, her mother having left her behind to escape North. Her own chance to take off comes in the form of Caesar, who sees her as a good luck charm because of her mother’s successful escape, and together they flee, managing to make it a station of the Underground Railroad.

    Whitehead imagines the railroad as tracks literally tunneling through the earth, complete with subterranean locomotives and boxcars. Each train journey serves to jump the narrative in some way — further in time but also into...more

  • The Book Thief

    Markus Zusak

    Set during WWII in Germany, The Book Thief starts by following Liesel Meminger traveling with her mother and brother traveling by train to Munich. Her mother is a communist and has found a foster home for them to protection as political tensions rise under the Nazis. Along the way her brother dies, and Liesel crosses paths for the first time with the novel’s narrator, Death. At her brother’s funeral, she also steals her first book: a manual on grave digging, which she is unable to read. The use of Death as a near-omniscient narrator has the potential to come off as contrived, but this empathetic version of Death sets a softened tone for the various horrors to come. And...more

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