Scrapper by Matt Bell

This disturbing, richly imagined novel will be hard to read at times not because of its style, which is formally ambitious but never pretentious or deliberately obscure. Rather the book may require frequent breaks because of its darkness, a kind of soul darkness that makes a reader see an old story–sexual abuse–anew. Of all the many articles, memoirs and novels I’ve read that deal with this issue, this is the book that captures its devastation most acutely, and from both the perpetrator’s and the victim’s perspective. A marvelous, if painful,... read more

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu

“There’s no justice in it, but there’s no evil in it either.” Judith offers this observation of how the world works, and it perfectly captures the virtues of this brief, wonderful novel about Sepha, an Ethiopian immigrant shopkeeper in Washington D.C, and a white American woman who moves in down the block. At once simple and complex, heartbreaking and uplifting, the novel tells a story of race, immigration, the American dream, poverty, education, class, and personal responsibility through the lens of one neighborhood’s gentrification, Sepha’s friendship with Joseph and Kenneth (immigrants from Congo and Kenya respectively) and Sepha and Judith’s brief romance. A wonderful example of the “time-braid” novel in first person, Mengestu takes us through the months Sepha spent with Judith and her daughter alternating in chapters with a day in the present, when Sepha receives an eviction notice. A rare subtlety, nuance and generosity distinguishes this novel’s spirit while the plot and characters perfectly balance social forces against personal circumstances and psychologies. Nothing is over-simplified, nothing over-stated. All of the characters are both capable of improving their lives and not, victims of the world’s prejudices and inequalities, as well as plain bad luck and their own self-defeating attitudes. Truth lies in these complexities and the novel is one of the best ways of finding it. Buy the... read more

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Set in 1955 and originally published in 1961, the book was adapted into a movie in 2009. However, its beauty and intelligence can’t be portrayed on film because they arise from the narrative techniques, not the plot or the dialogue. Yates is a master of point-of-view, using limited third-person, speculative, roaming and omniscient to tell the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a couple whose marriage is falling apart. While April is intensely and fully-realized with the most minimal of strokes, Frank is explored in detail, a complex man whose inner world is vastly more sympathetic than his observed weakness and foolishness. Simultaneously personal fiction and grand cultural indictment, like The Great Gatsby, Revolutionary Road is a masterpiece that manages to be both very much of its time and endure across the... read more

Everything Matters! by Ron Currie

Junior is born hearing the gods, who confide in him about the past and the future, including that the world will be hit by an asteroid when he is 36 and humanity will be annihilated. A reminder to “BE DARING” and write whatever you want, Currie’s novel is an inventive, heartfelt, perfectly pitched narrative about why even in the face of death (even the death of everyone and everything), life matters. Told in a braid of different perspectives (several first-person accounts by characters plus sections written in the rare second-person point of view) the novel avoids schmaltz and sentimentality through Currie’s brilliant manipulation of tone and avoids stagnation through his rapid-fire plot and time leaps. Buy the book.... read more

Among the Missing by Dan Chaon

I often feel unsatisfied by short stories. They are either too shallow (really? that’s all we get about these characters?), too gimmicky, too literary (more about words than real feelings), too easy (really? she realized life’s meaning  because of the way the moon shone on the water?) or just plain brutal (yep, life is hard at times. really hard. and sometimes we fuck up. fuck up really bad. so what?). Finalist for the National Book Award, Among the Missing by Dan Chaon (pronounced “Shawn”) achieves the amazing feat of not even flirting with any of these weaknesses. In “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom” a man struggles to bear the lifelong consequences of a lie he told as a teenager–a lie the majority of us would have told. In “Prodigal” a man tries to reconcile his anger at his  father with the growing realization of their similarities and the anger his own children probably feel for him. In “I Demand To Know Where You’re Taking Me” a woman is trapped between her love for her husband and her fear and disapproval of his beloved (but very disturbing) brothers. Every story’s length and events are perfectly tuned to its subject, every one has a voice both unique, credible and compelling and every one asks a very hard question and manages, astoundingly, to both speak to the question and avoid a pat answer. Buy the... read more

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

A woman takes her son to a museum to view her favorite painting. A bomb goes off. The painting and the boy make it out alive. The mother doesn’t. And so begins one of my favorite novels of all time. Still, I feel almost silly recommending it–if you haven’t read it already amid the press and awards, it’s probably because it’s not your type of book. But it’s so good, I can’t help it. I have to say officially–“buy it.” Get lost in hundreds of pages of Tartt’s amazing prose and riveting plot. When you finish you’ll go through withdrawal–it’s over? really?–but it’s worth it. You can always read it again next year. Buy the... read more

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

A novel about mental illness, longing, guilt, and identity (theft, choice, fate, and confusion–you name it, it’s here), this book is my favorite kind–a suspenseful plot that doesn’t sacrifice any of the literary pleasures. It offers precise, original language; compelling, complex characters; a perfect match between theme and situation; and credible outcomes for every single story thread. For writers looking at the technical aspects of a novel or fans of literary thrillers and mysteries looking for a little something special in form, it showcases a notably clever structure.  Read it once for pleasure, and a second time to figure out how Chaon pulled it off. (That’s pronounced “Shawn” by the way.) Buy the... read more

The Accidental by Ali Smith

In this marvelous novel a troubled British family vacationing outside London in the summer has their lives invaded by a young woman each thinks has been invited by someone else in the family.  Smith’s inventive use of form to relate a simple plot is the brilliance in this novel.  With multiple points of view and various formats such as Q&A, the story unfolds piecemeal, creating mystery where it is required, offering implication much more powerful than blunt statement.  A compelling meditation on knowledge, truth and consequence and an example of why how we tell a story is more important than the story we tell. Buy the... read more

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The Georgia Flu causes a worldwide pandemic; in a matter of weeks 99% of humans are dead. Over the next twenty years pockets of individuals form towns of 50-100 people, but the world is without electricity, without gas, without most of everything around which we live our lives: airplanes, radios, cars, TV’s, computers, phones, ovens, refrigerators, though the physical remains of these objects persist as reminders of the old world. The novel weaves together tales of multiple protagonists both before and after the collapse and how their lives intersect. An intelligent, lovely book that explores the fragility of civilization, both inside the human  heart and in the world at large. Buy the... read more

The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson

Despite the sensationalist premise–a male ballet dancer is abducted by three women, sexually violated and tortured–this novel eschews the gruesome, the voyeuristic and the easy.  A subtle, precisely-written meditation on trauma, gender roles and fate, Thomson’s novel calls to mind the caprice of Kafka, the philosophy of violence and the body in Milan Kundera and the psychological complexity of Ian McEwan. Buy the Book  ... read more
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Advance Praise for You Should Pity Us Instead: Stories by Amy Gustine

“Gustine excels at dramatizing the cunning of the human animal—a creature renowned for its skill at self-sabotage—as well as celebrating the freakish grace that can sometimes strike an ordinary life. You Should Pity Us Instead is a devastating, funny, and astonishingly frank collection.”

–Karen Russell, Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and author of Swamplandia!

“Intense situations plumbed with candor and a finely focused attentiveness to nuance…You Should Pity Us Instead is an authoritative debut.”

–Rosellen Brown, award-winning author of Before and After and Tender Mercies

“The stakes are high in every story, and not one of them ends without a moment both understated and haunting.  This is exactly the kind of prose a poet would write, and the kind of poetry out of which the best stories are spun.”

–Laura Kasischke, author of Mind of Winter

“Compassionate, subtle, utterly unsentimental, and lit with a rare wisdom. The stories are fearless.”

–Jane McCafferty, winner of the Drue Heinz Prize and author of First You Try Everything

“Amy Gustine’s stories cross impossible borders both physical and moral. Brave, essential, thrilling, each story takes us to those places we’ve never dared visit before.”

–Ben Stroud, winner of the Bakeless Prize and author of the award-winning Byzantium: Stories

“What a set of marvels these stories are…profound and moving works of art.”

–Lawrence Coates, author of The Goodbye House

“Searingly honest and deeply moving…a beguiling and beautiful debut.”

–Margo Rabb, author of Kissing in America and Cures for Heartbreak