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“Ken Bruen peppers his tales of world-weary ex-Garda (Irish cop) Jack Taylor with shamrock bromides that are often thought provoking or darkly humorous as Taylor muddles his violent way through the damp and peaty Irish landscape. “In Galway / They were forecasting a shortage of CO2 (no, me neither). / Which is what puts the kick, fizz, varoom in beer, soft drinks. / Ireland, without beer, in a heat wave.” You can almost hear the “tsk tsk” as Bruen imagines the mayhem that will ensue. Galway Girl finds Taylor beleaguered by a trio of spree killers targeting the Garda, a priest whose moral compass has been severely compromised and a surly falconer with an injured but nonetheless lethal bird of prey. Taylor’s ongoing battle with the demon rum (actually Jameson Irish Whiskey, in his case) hovers in the background of every scene, like some ominous uncle, familiar yet anything but benign. Bruen’s command of language and metaphor is on full display in his trademark staccato verse, and his sense of place is superb. And to top it all off, the final scene is so artfully and powerfully rendered that I had to go back and read it again. And again. And I likely will again.”
“My parents taught me that the universe is enormous and we humans are tiny beings who get to live on an out-of-the-way planet for the blink of an eye,” writes author Sasha Sagan in the introduction of For Small Creatures Such as We, a gorgeous collection of essays that reads like a memoir.
The daughter of two of the 20th century’s most important contributors—astronomer Carl Sagan and producer Ann Druyan—Sagan began thinking deeply about the traditions and passages that shape life on earth after becoming a mother herself. Birth, anniversaries, fasting, atonement: She approaches these subjects with wonderment and a generous window into her extraordinary family history. A secular Jew who was raised by her famous parents to be an independent and deep thinker, Sagan demonstrates that rituals aren’t reserved purely for the religious.
“There is so much change in this world,” she writes. “So many entrances and exits and ways to mark them, each one astonishing in its own way. Even if we don’t see birth or life as a miracle in the theological sense, it’s still breathtakingly worthy of celebration.”
Sagan writes with stunning clarity and absolute joy. In the chapter on coming of age, Sagan connects puberty with the myth of the werewolf, before galloping through the rites of passage observed by the Amish, Mormons, Apaches, Japanese and her own family. When Sagan got her first period at age 13, her mother “took me in her arms and made me feel this was cause for celebration.” Contrast this with her mother’s experience as a Jew: Druyan’s mother slapped her across the face, as was the inexplicable custom in that time.
For Small Creatures Such as We is a marvel. It dazzles and comforts while making us consider our own place in the vast universe. As Sagan writes, “We are, after all, someone’s distant future and someone else’s ancient past.”
“Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me by Adrienne Brodeur is a story of one daughter’s moral contortions to make her mother, Malabar, happy. Brodeur learned the full contours of her mother’s discontent by becoming embroiled in her extramarital affair.
Brodeur was only 14 when Malabar—a charming cookbook author wed to a wealthy man who soon fell ill after their marriage—divulged that she had taken a family friend, also married, as her lover. Brodeur kept their affair a secret from her stepfather, both families, her friends and, later, even her own spouse. Wild Game explores this secret’s impact on all of their lives, but primarily Brodeur’s own.
Brodeur knew her mother had suffered a tragic life due to parental abuse and the later death of a child. As Brodeur became personally invested in protecting the affair, she reveals herself to be an extraordinary case of the parentified child. Anyone with similar childhood circumstances will relate to the weightiness of filial duty depicted in Wild Game.
But Brodeur is also extraordinary for how, on the other side of this story, she has ended up basically OK. She’s married again, a parent herself and a lovely writer. (She is the former editor of Zoetrope: All-Story, a literary magazine she launched with Francis Ford Coppola.) Her talent with words lies in her ability to make the reader feel deeply empathetic for Malabar, while at the same time abhorring her behavior as a parent. Mother and daughter are, certainly, a perpetrator and a victim. But the reader is liable to be convinced, as Broedur is, that her mother was very much a victim, too.”
“In the 1920s, Josephine takes over her husband’s land after his death. The farm is flourishing, but when a suspicious white family moves in nearby, Josephine discovers too late their affiliation to the Ku Klux Klan. In 2017, Ava, a biracial single mother descended from Josephine, has just been laid off. She takes up her white grandmother’s offer to move in together, a proposal that seems attractive at first, until her grandmother begins to have violent outbursts.
Sexton’s characters’ realistic interior thoughts drive the novel, revealing hidden emotions of apprehension and nostalgia. Ava and Josephine display an unusual ability to discern people’s motives; Ava has a unique perception of her mother, and Josephine understands her son’s struggle to break out from his father’s shadow. Though they experience the world at different times and through different circumstances, their worlds intersect through a shared purpose: to offer support, comfort and healing.
Despite everything, Ava and Josephine hold on to hope, refusing to be bound by the constraints of their eras. The Revisioners is an uplifting novel of black women and their tenacity.”
“Mike Wolf’s Garden to Glass, which explores the intersection of gardening, foraging and beverage design, offers instant appeal. Wolf, who worked with chef Sean Brock at Husk in Nashville, is a curious and passionate guide, taking readers into his garden and onto trails where he gathers ingredients for bitters, cordials, shrubs and more. These are featured in recipes that will enhance any bar program or make you one hell of a home mixologist. Beautiful watercolor illustrations and interviews with specialists give this study of botanical cocktails a dimension not achieved in other guides.”
“Award-winning poet and novelist Michael Crummey’s work draws imaginatively from the history and landscape of his native Newfoundland. The Innocents, his fifth novel, is the riveting story of an orphaned brother and sister whose relationship is tested by hardship and isolation in 19th-century coastal Labrador.
Ada and Evered Best live in a cove in the far northern province. Their home is a stretch of rocky coast with a simple shelter, and they survive with only the most rudimentary information passed down by their parents. The siblings support themselves by catching and salting cod, which they trade for supplies twice a year, as well as by tending a small garden and trapping the occasional animal for meat. The repetition of the changing seasons defines the pair’s existence—the breaking of the ice at the end of the long winter, the return of the cod, the annual gorging on the sweet berries that grow wild farther inland. As the years pass, their relationship changes, and when they enter puberty, their connection becomes more complicated. Though Ada and Evered once welcomed the occasional visitors who found their way to their coastline, their intimacy, developed in innocence, seems shameful in the light of even the most casual observation.
Crummey found the inspiration for the novel from an archival passage by a traveling clergyman who met an orphaned brother and sister living in a remote northern cove. When the clergyman approached them, the boy drove him away at gunpoint. Crummey has transformed this fragment into a richly fashioned story told with great sensitivity—one that is as credible as it is magical.
The Innocents reminds us of all the reasons we read—to understand, to imagine, to find compassion and to witness the making of art.”
“Jaquira Díaz’s Ordinary Girls reaches deep into your heart and seizes your emotions from the very first sizzling paragraph. And as it carries you into some of Díaz’s darkest shadows and out into variegated light, it refuses to let go. In staccato sentences, Díaz walks us through her community: “We were the girls who strolled onto the blacktop on long summer days, dribbling past the boys on the court. . . . We were the wild girls who loved music and dancing. Girls who were black and brown and poor and queer. Girls who loved each other.”
In fiercely honest prose, Díaz turns back every page of her life, starting with growing up in El Caserío Padre Rivera, the government housing projects in Puerto Rico, and sharing stories from there that she “never wants to forget.” In this world, Díaz learns about danger and violence and death, but she also learns about community. She yearns for a more loving family and home, but her mother and father can provide only a soundtrack of constant bickering and yelling. There’s no love lost between Díaz and her brother, who beats her and abuses her emotionally and whom she tries to kill with a steak knife.
When the family moves to Miami Beach, life looks a little sunnier because they’ve moved up financially, but only for a moment. Her mother and father split, and her mother sinks into addiction that’s exacerbated by schizophrenia. Díaz eventually escapes the violence through an early marriage, a stint in the Navy and enrollment in college and creative writing courses, though she never sheds her friendships, her family or her memories.
The stunning beauty of Díaz’s memoir grows out of its passion, its defiance, its longing, its love and its clear-eyed honesty. Díaz’s story hums with a vibrant beauty, shining a light out of the darkness that shadowed her life.”
“As graduate student Zachary Ezra Rawlins contemplates which book to choose in his university library, he muses that reading a novel “is like playing a game where all the choices have been made for you ahead of time by someone who is much better at that particular game.” That’s certainly the case when the author in question is Erin Morgenstern, who mesmerized readers with her breakout debut, The Night Circus, and now returns with her highly anticipated second novel, The Starless Sea, a grand fantasy about books, the power of literature and storytelling.
The mysterious book Zachary ends up choosing features him as a character and leads him on an epic quest, first to the Algonquin Hotel Annual Literary Masquerade in New York City and ultimately through a secret doorway to a subterranean realm where he finds pirates, an Owl King, fairy tales, a story sculptor and “an underground trove of books and stories beneath their feet.” Think Harry Potter for book lovers and grown-ups. (Zachary’s favorite drink is a sidecar, and he falls in love during his adventures.) There are literary references galore, as well as an undertone of video games. “Is that Zelda for Princess or Fitzgerald?” Zachary asks at one point. The response he receives: “Little bit of both.”
Paralleling Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, a nonfiction ode to books, libraries and librarians, The Starless Sea is a fictional journey dedicated to stories and storytelling. Both are lively, inventive titles chock-full of book-centric quotes.
This hefty novel requires imaginary leaps and careful attention to stories and characters that wind their way in many different directions, but Morgenstern—now proving not once, but twice, what an adept literary juggler she is—manages to weave a multitude of strands together into one mighty, magical tale.”
“Queer history is both old and new. We have been gay since the dawn of time, but only recently have queer people really started to speak our own stories into the historical record. The novelty of this—as well as the precarious lives many LGBTQ people still live—raises its own questions: Which stories do we tell? Relative to established narrative forms, where and how do they fit? What about the bad parts?
“I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this,” Carmen Maria Machado writes at the beginning of her stunning new memoir, In the Dream House. “I speak into the silence.” The book describes the arc of a romantic relationship turned sour, controlling and claustrophobic, the house of its title becoming a place where Machado locks herself in the bathroom while her girlfriend tries to break down the door.
To call it a memoir, though, is to give short shrift to the exquisite strangeness and formal innovation that Machado achieves. The author of Her Body and Other Parties—a National Book Award-nominated collection of stories combining elements of fable, fantasy, noir, erotic thriller, science fiction and fairy tale—Machado imports her fascination with genre into In the Dream House. Each of the book’s short chapters nods to some trope or narrative tradition that Machado is playing with—“American Gothic” or “Lesbian Pulp Novel.” This is a clever device, but it’s also a propulsive one, and occasionally leavening. One chapter is precisely one sentence long: “‘We can fuck,’ she says, ‘but we can’t fall in love.’” Its title is “Dream House as Famous Last Words.”
If this all sounds very metatextual, know that Machado has pulled off an amazing feat: a book that comments on its own existence and the silences it endeavors to fill; a work deeply informed by a sense of identity and community; and page after page of flawless, flaying, addictive prose. In the Dream House is astonishingly good.”
“Kids are unpredictable. They suddenly love food they once thought disgusting. And sometimes they just might spontaneously combust.
In Nothing to See Here, Kevin Wilson doesn’t dwell on the science of human combustion. Instead, he uses the phenomenon as a clever metaphor for human behavior, especially as it relates to a seemingly privileged family.
Lillian Breaker, the novel’s 28-year-old narrator, is anything but privileged. She grows up poor in Tennessee but is determined to seek a better life, so she earns a scholarship to the prestigious Iron Mountain Girls Preparatory School. She develops a fast friendship with Madison Billings, a rich girl whose family owns a chain of department stores. They’re classmates for a year, until another student rats on Madison for having cocaine in her room. The Billings family’s solution? Bribe Lillian’s mother and get Lillian to take the rap.
The young women go their separate ways until years later, when Madison is the wife of a senator who had twins with a previous spouse. The senator is eager to assume higher political office, but the 10-year-old twins are a liability. Whenever something upsets them, they burst into flames, damaging everything around them but leaving their own bodies unharmed. Madison hires Lillian to live on the family estate and act as governess to the two children. What follows is a series of revelations for all parties, as Lillian discovers untapped maternal instincts and Madison and her husband learn more about their family dynamics.”