Fiction

  • 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

  • Wolf in White Van

    John Darnielle

    Image of Wolf in White Van: A Novel

    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

    Image of Commentary (Dossier)

    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

  • Winter in the Blood

    James Welch

    Image of Winter in the Blood (Penguin Classics)

    In some ways a bleak novella, Welch’s writing is so elegant that I found this hard to put down, even when the sadness felt very deep. Since it’s a largely interior story from the perspective of a self-destructive guy, it rambles and dips into the past in ways that only heighten a sense of being lost. It takes a while to find out what factors from the past are actually playing out in the wayward adventures of his present. The most profound revelation near the end is largely unexpected and speaks to the power of stories, and yet how easily they can be lost.

    Louis Erdrich wrote the introduction to this edition, starting out by saying that it should have...more

  • The Spectator Bird

    Wallace Stegner

    Image of The Spectator Bird (Penguin Classics)

    I can’t say I was at all familiar with Stegner when I found this book on a giveaway pile with two books that I loved. This could be a rather melancholy book to some as it’s written by a retired literary agent supposedly cajoled into penning his memoirs at his wife’s behest, despite feeling this “implies an arrogance, or confidence, or compulsion to justify oneself” that he doesn’t claim. But I think ultimately there is a sense of resigned hope, even if he does start out describing himself like this:

    As for Joe Allston, he has been a wisecracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people, and a tourist in his own. There has not been one significant event

    ...more
  • Lila

    Marilynne Robinson

    Image of Lila: A Novel

    The only other Marilynne Robinson book I’ve read is the only one that doesn’t involve this same group of characters in Gilead, Iowa. Though the third in that series, Lila definitely can stand alone. From what I’ve read, this is somewhat of a retelling of at least parts of the same stories found in the other two, just from a different character’s perspective — instead of sewing contrasting points of view in one story, Robinson gives them entire books. While part of me is interested to read the others, I so enjoyed reading from Lila’s perspective that I’m a little hesitant to take on a different angle. I suspect I’ve already read the book that I will like the most.

    At times...more

  • Inferno

    Eileen Myles

    Image of Inferno: A Poet's Novel

    Sometimes I’m surprised when it’s hard to write about books I really like, not being able to pinpoint what it is that I appreciate about them. It seems it should be easy when you’ve enjoyed something. Inferno is subtitled “a poet’s novel,” but also is kind of a memoir; it defies that straightforward categorization that makes it easy to synopsize. Other people have described it as “messy” or “slippery,” and, despite having qualities of a coming-of-age story, it zigzags through time and avoids the strictly linear framework — or even that postmodern, multilinear progression where the story steadily moves back and forth between eras, still in a forward-like movement — that you might expect. When I look back on what I’ve been reading over...more

  • Speedboat

    Renata Adler

    Image of Speedboat (NYRB Classics)

    Over the past year, Speedboat kept coming up over and over, referenced in essays and other books, recommended by friends. While it’s called a novel, it’s so fragmented that any disconnected arcs are hard to link in any meaningful way. I found it pleasurable to read, despite the challenge of it. By the end I found some sense of cohesiveness, though not in any traditional sense; it might have been more that I finally stopped resisting any attempt to find hidden threads that exposed the logic under these groupings of seemingly mundane anecdotes. It’s similar to Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, but probably more jarring in its disjointedness.

    The wallflower sat reading in the Paris restaurant. There used to be

    ...more
  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

    Haruki Murakami

    Image of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A novel

    I might have skipped this Murakami novel, underwhelmed by the past few, but then Patti Smith reviewed it for The New York Times, sparking some interest with this description:

    This is a book for both the new and experienced reader. It has a strange casualness, as if it unfolded as Murakami wrote it; at times, it seems like a prequel to a whole other narrative. The feel is uneven, the dialogue somewhat stilted, either by design or flawed in translation. Yet there are moments of epiphany gracefully expressed, especially in regard to how people affect one another. “One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone,” Tsukuru comes to understand. “They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds.

    ...more

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