Fiction

  • A Little Life

    Hanya Yanagihara

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

  • Wolf in White Van

    John Darnielle

    Indie rock fans of a certain age might know John Darnielle better as the frontman of (or the solo act known as, depending on the era) The Mountain Goats. Wolf in White Van is his second work of fiction; he previously wrote a YA novel called Master of Reality about the Black Sabbath album for the 33⅓ series. Some readers of both say these two works tread on similar ground: troubled adolescents, heavy metal tapes. This one seems a little more developed and intricately woven.

    Sean Phillips was 17 when a terrible accident left him disfigured, and his only form of work as an adult has been creating and maintaining games that are...more

  • Commentary

    Marcelle Sauvageot

    Some ballads begin as your letter does: ‘You, whom I’ve loved so much…’ This past tense, with the present still resounding so close, is as sad as the ends of parties, when the lights are turned off and you remain alone, watching the couples go off into the dark streets. It’s over: nothing else is to be expected, and yet you stay there indefinitely, knowing that nothing more will happen. You have notes like a guitar’s; at times, like a chorus that repeats: ‘I could not have given you happiness.’ It’s an old song from long ago, like a dried flower…Does the past become an old thing so quickly?

    Sauvageot wrote Commentary in a sanitarium not long before her death...more

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