Fiction

  • 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....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...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...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...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

  • Airless Spaces

    Shulamith Firestone

    Passable, Not Presentable
    She remembered the time before she had gotten sick. When it was a challenge to dress, how good it felt to look just right and be certain of one’s appearance. Then came losing her looks in the hospital, and the ghastly difference it made in the way she was received; the way people turned away from her after one glance in the street. And the slow climb back, trying to disguise the stiffness in her gait, and the drooling moronic look on her face that came from the medication. Perhaps this was why the mentally disabled always seemed so bland-looking as a group: they had to strive to look orginary, the “pass.” That little bit of

    ...more
  • The Guest Cat

    Takashi Hiraide

    For the past few years I’ve been doing the Goodreads Reading Challenge and this year I uncharacteristically got quite behind on my goal, so recently I’ve been reading a lot of short books to catch up. It’s actually been nice to get to books that have been on my list for a long time — like Annie John — and though it felt a bit like cheating at first, I’ve been enjoying my reading so much lately that I’m starting to think lengthiness in writing may be very overrated.

    The Guest Cat a quiet story about a couple who once lived in the guesthouse of a large manor located off an alleyway. They both worked from home writing/editing and though they were...more

  • Safe as Houses

    Marie-Helene Bertino

    Quirky stories where houses rarely seem safe; the shorter ones tend to have better premises than delivery, but the longer ones benefit from the increased development. It felt to me that I enjoyed each story more than the last one, which left an overall positive feeling, though I started out feeling underwhelmed. The finale, “Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph,” was my favorite: a woman struggling to adjust from a breakup becomes caretaker at a convent and uncovers secrets of the nuns she lives with. I got a little distracted by tomato growing details that didn’t seem accurate, unless this story takes place somewhere tropical. (Tomato plants are generally grown as annuals where winters are cold, and March would...more

  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

    Muriel Spark

    A strange little novel about a teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls with a very unorthodox teaching style in which she focuses more on exposing her students to Art and Culture and stories of her love life rather than covering stuffy subjects like math and history. She collects a core group of girls around her, and they become the “Brodie set,” keeping themselves apart from the rest of the school even as they move on to the senior school. Through periodic flash forwards, we learn that one of Miss Brodie’s girls betrays her, prompting her early retirement while she is still “in her prime.”

    Spark’s writing is remarkably concise with a sarcastic humor that will likely either...more

  • Annie John

    Jamaica Kincaid

    A stunning and spare coming-of-age novel, Annie John was originally published in The New Yorker chapter by chapter as separate stories. Kincaid focuses primarily on the internal shifts Annie experiences as she matures, mostly in how she transitions from loving and wanting to emulate her mother to nearly despising her and feeling ambivalent about her life in Antigua. Though Annie is an excellent student, she has a mischievous side; she steals library books and stashes them with all the marbles she has won, hiding all from her mother’s disapproval. She strives to amuse her classmates by any means necessary and has a couple intense friendships which she keeps secret as well, even keeping the friendships distinctly separate from each other....more

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