• Salvage the Bones

    Jesmyn Ward

    It’s hard not to think of Benh Zeitlin’s beautiful film Beasts of the Southern Wild while reading this book that is also centered around an impoverished bayou community bracing for an approaching hurricane. The heroines also have similar fierceness nestled in vulnerability and struggle with the absence of their mothers but the presence of wounded fathers.

    But Salvage the Bones is specifically set around Hurricane Katrina, and Esch is both older and less isolated with a troop of brothers. She has a reputation for sleeping with any boy who comes on to her, and at the beginning of the story, she discovers she is pregnant. The parallel between her noticing the changes in her body as news of the...more

  • This is How You Lose Her

    Junot Díaz

    Partway into this collection, Teri tweeted a link to this comment thread on a Hairpin advice post, prompting a brief discussion of Díaz and how autobiographical his work might be. Since I haven’t read much about him as a person before, I wasn’t aware that his character Yunior, who is the centerpiece of this collection of stories, is really quite similar to him, making much of his fiction pretty true-to-life. That awareness made some of the stories more uncomfortable to read than others, notably those that are primarily about Yunior’s womanizing tendencies. One could read these potentially misogynistic moments as highlighting the struggles of Latino masculinity, yet there’s a line between deconstructive exploration and stubborn glorification that shifts...more

  • Tenth of December

    George Saunders

    I always feel I should like George Saunders more than I do; when The New York Times emphatically declared this “the best book you’ll read this year,” I thought perhaps these would be the stories that would teach me to love him. The flaw in this thinking being that I read several of them when they ran in The New Yorker. I plodded through “Escape from Spiderhead” both times I read it.

    What I find tough about Saunders is the hopelessness of his dystopian satire. I see the humor, I appreciate the spareness of his prose, but emotionally his stories just bum me out. There are too many characters trying so pointlessly to be better people — ”pointlessly” because in their...more

  • The Round House

    Louise Erdrich

    For some reason I’ve never read any Louise Erdrich novels before, so I was glad to get to The Round House and later find out that many of her books are centered around the same fictional North Dakota reservation and the community there. It’s impressive to know that this book is grounded in a well-established history, but yet it can effortlessly draw in a reader unfamiliar with any of the preceding stories.

    This story is set in 1988 and is mainly told from the perspective of Joe who was then thirteen but is looking back as an adult. His mother survives a brutal attack — she is beaten and raped — but then shuts down, withdrawing and refusing to identify who attacked her. Joe’s father...more

  • Snow

    Orhan Pamuk

    Feeling pleased at the wintry theme at the time, I bought Snow with Winter’s Tale — now the association with Helprin’s novel is not at all flattering, but luckily they have little in common beyond cold weather. And whereas Winter’s Tale is best at the beginning, Snow felt rather tedious at the start and got better after the story was established.

    Focused on a poet who goes by Ka who is currently living in exile from Turkey and is visiting the eastern city of Kars for only the second time in his life, the book is written from the perspective of “Orhan the novelist,” a friend of Ka’s who is piecing things together from his notebooks years later. Almost every major...more

  • Winter’s Tale

    Mark Helprin

    In 2006, a New York Times poll asked “a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages” What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?, and Winter’s Tale incredibly received multiple votes. It’s not so strange to think that people would enjoy this lengthy novel based in New York City, stretching roughly a hundred years from the turn of the 20th century to an apocalyptic 2000: it just seems odd that multiple people would pick it as the best, above others, in the last 25 years.

    Helprin’s prose is beautifully florid, but the narrative seems to serve only to create...more

  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

    Robin Sloan

    I imagine this quirky novel would be a talking point for people interested in the “digital humanities,” as it pits dusty, old books and their creaky scholars against shiny, electronic devices and their optimistic geeks. That’s definitely both exaggeration and simplification as there are characters that walk the analog-digital line, but then it’s also a lighthearted narrative in which many of the characters are archetypal.

    Set amidst a hyperrealistic San Francisco, the bookstore of the title appears to a young, unemployed web designer who is eager for any work and takes the night shift. He soon realizes the store also functions as a library for a collection of mysterious books that seem to written in code. And, because it wouldn’t...more

  • The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

    Lydia Davis

    I read the first two books in this collection not quite two years ago. Now maybe wasn’t the best time to revisit this, as I felt pretty distracted until the end when I was able to find some focus again. But then reading one of Davis’s books is more of an effort than you would expect, partially because her stories vary from the incredibly short to involved. The incredibly short ones seem like they would be the easiest, but sometimes the linguistic riffing takes some time to untangle. Even the involved stories don’t follow any kind of traditional narrative and don’t necessarily sweep you up in the usual way.

    Two of my favorite longer stories from the last book...more

  • The Flight of Gemma Hardy

    Margot Livesey

    I’m not sure why exactly I rescued this book from a free pile, but I’d guess it was due to its Jane Eyre roots and my appreciation of Wide Sargasso Sea. I was really convinced I had never read Jane Eyre, but according to what I wrote about Jean Rhys’s book, I did, at some point. Apparently my memories of it are even hazier now, to the point of obscurity.

    Set in mid-20th-century Scotland, and, as noted, based on the storyline of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, The Flight of Gemma Harding is entertaining enough. I got through it in a week, despite its length nearing in on 500 pages. But the story is very tidy, and the pace rumbles on a...more

  • The False Friend

    Myla Goldberg

    I was surprised that I hadn’t heard much about this novel from the writer of one of my favorites, Bee Season, which maybe someone else would have considered a really bad sign. But I enjoyed her second novel, Wickett’s Remedy, and have a fond memory of attending a reading for that book where she talked in detail about the research she did at the NYPL to learn about the 1918 influenza pandemic. Her appreciation of the pneumatic tubes in the library was especially endearing.

    The False Friend starts out on a good, mysterious note. A woman suddenly has a revelation about a terrible event that happened twenty years ago, which involved the disappearance of her best friend....more