Fiction

  • 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...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...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...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...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...more

  • Other People We Married

    Emma Straub

    Summer, with all its distractions, is generally an opportune time for reading short fiction that you can digest in small segments. This collection seems like a particularly good fit, as many of the stories have themes of travel. At some point I thought to myself that it was strange that two of them had a character with the same name; only after finishing and reading a few reviews did it come clear that this wasn’t a coincidence — I’d actually missed that the character recurred in three stories. Summer and its distractions?

    The stories follow a pretty traditional short story structure: just enough info to know who you’re dealing with; a simple conflict; and a quiet revelation, but not necessarily a resolution....more

  • How Should a Person Be?

    Sheila Heti

    I might have skipped this semi-autobiographical novel entirely if I’d only read James Wood’s rather negative opinion in his New Yorker review. Luckily a friend pointed me toward Johanna Fateman’s Bookforum review, and I reconsidered. It’s a strangely tricky book, as I suspect readers will either relate or entirely not-relate to the character Sheila’s ambition to be the best person she can be. But those who do relate may enjoy how she explores this conceit, while others may be disgusted by the ugliness of it and what that, indirectly, says about them.

    The story doesn’t have a traditional structure with its confessional nature and sections written in play form and emails written as lists and one notably...more

  • Man Walks into a Room

    Nicole Krauss

    Not long after unpacking my books after moving, a friend asked for a book recommendation, and I pulled The History of Love off the shelf, which reminded me that I had put this one, Krauss’s first novel, on my list a while back. The History of Love has stayed a favorite of mine for several years and her next book Great House treads in pretty similar territory; so it was a surprise how different this book felt.

    Most of the story is from the perspective of a man who was found wandering in the desert, with no memory of who he is. This turns out to be caused by a tumor, but after surgery only part of his...more

  • 1Q84

    Haruki Murakami

    Waiting for the paperback version of 1Q84 meant being rewarded with a manageable three-volume set and also hearing the mixture of enjoyment and ambivalence that early readers already worked through. Since I’ve read so much of Murakami’s work, I knew I’d read it regardless of the overall less-than-stellar trend in responses. Most of the book was entertaining to read, but the length is a tough aspect. At times it feels long for the point of being long, like content is just padded on to draw the story out longer. Murakami loves the banalities of his characters’ lives, so this level of detail is not entirely out of place in his work. But there were also moments of inconsistency and...more

  • The Bathroom

    Jean-Philippe Toussaint

    Sometimes when you’re stuck with a book you can’t get into and can’t let go of, the best thing that can happen is to stumble upon something else that will give you the route to move on to the next one. In this case, I’d been carrying around Zadie Smith’s On Beauty for several weeks, untouched beyond the first twenty pages, before a stoop-side giveaway presented this novella as an alternative. While the integrity of unfamiliar books abandoned to the dangers of the street is inherently suspect, tastes are subjective. And I did come to The Woman in the Dunes through a box of books left on a street.

    The Bathroom is written in such short sections that the...more

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