• Infinite Home

    Kathleen Alcott

    Image of Infinite Home: A Novel

    I suppose we are reaching peak Brooklyn when in the course of two months, I’ve read two recent ensemble novels based in Brooklyn brownstones. (The other one I skipped writing about.) The characters of Infinite Home are a disparate group who barely interact with each other for years, yet in the course of this story come to bond into a familial unit. It’s a breeze to read, the chapters bouncing quickly around the different apartments of the building, and Alcott manages to fill in everyone’s back story while moving the greater narrative forward. But for the most part the characters remained fictional personas to me. They are all affectedly flawed with too many contrived and even out-of-character moments — as when (spoiler)...more

  • My Brilliant Friend

    Elena Ferrante

    Image of My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book One

    After reading A Little Life, I floundered about, starting and not finishing several books, getting to the end of one only by skimming through the last twenty pages. Some of them are surely good ones, I just wasn’t in the mood for them. As September neared and Ferrante fever grew in anticipation of the publication of the fourth and final book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, I borrowed a copy of #1 and thankfully fell under its spell. I needed something to break the trauma hex I was under.

    I’m writing this as I’m about 80% through the second book, so it’s hard to really just write about this one. I can already see why people have said...more

  • A Little Life

    Hanya Yanagihara

    Image of A Little Life: A Novel

    It’s hard writing about this book as it’s very engrossing and entertaining in some ways, but so devastating in others. At the beginning it appears to be a story about a group of four guys leaving college and commencing their adult lives in New York City, a pretty standard coming-of-age scenario. The narrative focuses on each friend in turn, revealing their upbringings, their artistic and scholarly talents, and their adolescent dreams, but when it lands on Jude, the narrative twists. His troubled early life is outlined hazily and suggestions of serious trauma (of all varieties) are clear from the beginning. Yet it takes nearly the whole novel to unlock them all.

    Hanya Yanagihara has referred to this book as a...more

  • All the Light We Cannot See

    Anthony Doerr

    Image of All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel

    It’s not very often that I’m drawn to read historical novels, yet this one received so many accolades, including this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, that my curiosity prevailed. I can see why it has wide appeal: Doerr has a sentimental writing style and the alternating chapters are short enough that they can’t get too complicated — they generally pull each other along swiftly. Early on this pacing felt choppy to me, and I’d set the book aside after a few tiny chapters, making it a much slower read until I adjusted to the constant jostling.

    Set primarily in occupied France during WWII, the focus is divided between two young people on opposing sides. One is a French girl name...more

  • Call Me By Your Name

    André Aciman

    Image of Call Me by Your Name: A Novel

    I spent about a month trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory before finally accepting that the passages I liked were buried in overwrought nostalgia about a privileged childhood that just didn’t resonate with me. It felt like the wrong sort of prose to apply persistence to appreciating. Instead I turned to this novel with similar reminiscent ambitions, but far more engrossing story. Elio recalls the summer he was seventeen when he fell for a visiting scholar who came to the family villa for a summer residency. He tries his best to act indifferent to the man, but they share a brief romance.

    On the heels of my Nabokov abandonment, the descriptions of the idyllic scenery...more

  • Outline

    Rachel Cusk

    Image of Outline: A Novel

    I referred to 10:04 as feeling at times like “a novel of anecdotes,” with many parts structured around characters telling each other stories. Entirely by chance I picked up Outline shortly after and found Rachel Cusk built it entirely around this framework, though more people call it “a novel of conversations.” The twist is that the main character, a writer teaching a summer workshop in Athens, converses mostly with people who dominate their exchanges, and therefore we learn very little about her, directly at least. The premise is that she takes shape in the negative space of all their chatter, but that idea at first seems more convincing than the book’s actuality.

    Cusk acknowledges this subtly. At one...more

  • 10:04

    Ben Lerner

    Image of 10:04: A Novel

    Leaving the Atocha Station was an unexpected pleasure, a book that I picked up uncertainly and felt won over by. Even though I was conscious of limiting my expectations (or at least trying to) with this novel, Lerner’s second, I still felt disappointed that I wasn’t as engaged with this one as I’d hoped I would be.

    There are similar themes and pretenses in both books, like questions of authenticity — though here they are framed more from the perspective of intended fraudulence rather than being discovered as accidentally inauthentic. It’s much clearer in this novel how similar the main character is to the author, but 10:04 treads into autobiographical metafiction territory, most clearly when the short story Lerner had published...more

  • Nobody is Ever Missing

    Catherine Lacey

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    I had a hard time starting another book after Dust, and I waited a few days before picking up Nobody is Ever Missing. Lacey’s rambling, run-on paragraphs are in every way different from Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s meticulously honed prose, so it was an especially jarring transition. This is also not a complicated book; it’s about a woman who abruptly leaves her decent life in Manhattan with her husband to drift in New Zealand for months. While the character Elyria seems to have some self-awareness on the page, the story is narrated with some distance of time, so it’s much too late to influence her often panicked actions. I feel like the whole story can be summed up with this...more

  • Dust

    Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

    Image of Dust

    A dense and beautiful novel, Dust is largely focused on one splintered family and how their stories are interwoven with violent events in Kenya’s post-colonial history. Owuor writes with emotional intensity, and while her language feels lush and expansive overall, much of the narrative is peppered with lyrical fragments. The rhythm of these staccato interludes can take some time to grasp, but once it becomes familiar, the story progresses smoothly, even as the cadence varies. The characters largely defy stereotypes — all are fractured in unique ways — and there are few moments that arrive with a feel of expectancy or inevitability. Dust resists being a historical record, and is instead concentrated more on personal experiences of Kenya’s politics, so it’s not a comprehensive...more

  • Things Fall Apart

    Chinua Achebe

    Image of Things Fall Apart: A Novel

    This is the archetypal modern African novel, and funnily enough it wound up on my list partially from Aaron Bady’s list of African novels to read before you die — posted in response to a list he found to be predictable. Of course this book is on the latter list, but I’ll be following it up with one of Bady’s suggestions.

    Things Fall Apart presents a bit of a challenge because the main character Okonkwo is largely unsympathetic. He is strong and hard-working but also hyper-masculine and ruthless. He laments that his oldest son Nwoye is weak-willed and wishes his favorite daughter was a boy instead so she could follow in his footsteps, as his son likely will not. The first...more