The Atlantic’s editors and writers share their recommendations for summer reading—new titles, old favorites, and others in between.
By Yaa Gyasi
In her first novel, Yaa Gyasi cleverly weaves the intergenerational tale of a family through a series of short, but interrelated stories set in what’s now Ghana during the mid-18th century. The two women at the center of the novel, Effia and Esi, are half-sisters who wind up on vastly different paths. One is captured during a battle between tribes, sold, and winds up on a slave ship bound for the U.S. The other—separated from her village and married off to a British slaver—ends up living on top of the dungeons that hold her own kin and hundreds of others who would also become slaves. The novel traces the lineage of these women through the tales of their children, and their children’s children, and so on—up until the present day.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Homegoing is how it takes racial history that’s often sanitized or glossed over and deftly pushes the the reader to contemplate the horrors inflicted upon black bodies at a granular and personal level. “Ness would fall asleep to the images of men being thrown into the Atlantic Ocean like anchors attached to nothing: no land, no people, no worth,” she writes. “In the Big Boat Esi said, they were stacked ten high, and when a man died on top of you, his weight would press the pile down like cooks pressing garlic.”
In her beautiful and painstaking retelling of this tragically divided family, Gyasi does more than provide a compelling fictional narrative—she lays out how the atrocities committed against a group of people have lived on, morphing across place and time. From slavery to Jim Crow to drug epidemics. From the Cape Coast to Pratt City to Harlem.
I read Homegoing during yet another week of heightened racial tension, anger, and disillusionment. But instead of increasing my despair, Gyasi’s placement of Africans and black Americans as the central characters in the story of race—capable of both tremendous sin and tremendous resilience, with the ability to overcome, change, and push forward—made the story hopeful and empowering. I hadn’t felt that way in a very long time.
Book I’m hoping to read: Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching by Mychal Denzel Smith
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
BY Haruki Murakami
Writing, like running, is something that’s glorious in theory, uncomfortable and humiliating in practice, and much easier to appreciate once it’s done. I love both; I frequently hate both, too. In summer—particularly in Washington where a five-minute walk to the drugstore leaves you languid and limp—it’s all too easy to put off either. But Haruki Murakami’s slight 2008 book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is the perfect antidote to procrastination.
Part-memoir, part-fitness journal, part-travelogue, the book narrates a period in the author’s life (from 2005 to 2006) as he trains for the New York Marathon. Along the way, he recounts how he became a runner and how he became a writer, how similar the impulse was in both cases, and how the rhythm of long-distance running mimics the rhythm of writing. Both, Murakami argues, require discipline, talent, and commitment. But he also points out how running in some sense is a natural complement to the life of a writer: It forces you outside, and counteracts the “unhealthy type of work” that writing can be.
“Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest,” he writes. “If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as whole. I believe many runners would agree.” It’s hard not to. In writing about running with such precision and clarity, Murakami offers a compelling endorsement of both.
Book I’m hoping to read: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
When Breath Becomes Air
by Paul Kalanithi
Despite loftier Goodreads ambitions, I’ve tended to tear into a certain type of book this year: collections of essays by sad girls and cool ladies. Paul Kalanithi’s memoir stood apart, but was no less absorbing. The book details Kalanithi’s two-year battle with stage-four metastatic lung cancer; he was diagnosed in 2013 toward the end of a neurosurgery residency at Stanford University, and he died last year at the age of 37.
Sure, the subject matter is heavier than the average beach read. But the best part of summer reading is—in theory, at least—having the time and capacity to be utterly consumed by a book. Kalanithi’s writing prompts a different kind of escapism from what you might associate with vacation lit—less distraction, more clarity. For me, the book was an invitation to confront my own understanding of a full life, the satisfying achievements and enduring love therein.
Kalanithi’s reflections on learning, growing, and dying are vulnerable and thoughtful. His language is fluid, elegant, and liable to linger in your head for days after reading. He faced his illness at the apex of a life built leaning into pain and the inevitability of death, absorbing as much as he could of the world. “Even while terminally ill Paul was fully alive,” his widow, Lucy, writes in the epilogue. “Despite physical collapse, he remained vigorous, open, full of hope not for an unlikely cure but for days that were full of purpose and meaning.”
Book I’m hoping to read: The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Still Wild: Short Fiction of the American West 1950 to the Present
by Larry McMurtry
Larry McMurtry, minor regional novelist, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, and your grandfather's wildest dreams. Still Wild, a 2001 short-story collection he edited, is a gathering of some of the best in contemporary Western short fiction: a meditation on the American West as a strange, dangerous, and lonely place, written by a murderer’s row of contributors including Richard Ford, Wallace Stegner, Louise Erdrich, Raymond Carver, and Dianna Osanna.
Here, the West comes at you sideways—there are no John Waynes, and Monument Valley is far away. Rather, these stories interest themselves in a feeling, an environment. As McMurtry notes in the book’s introduction, only since 1950 has the West really become a producer—“as opposed to an importer”—of great writers. Still Wild, then, is a collection by people who know the land they're writing about intimately.
Here’s Stegner describing a boy awake in the night: “Through one half-open eye he had peered up from his pillow to see the moon skimming windily in a luminous sky; in his mind he had seen the prairie outside with its woolly grass and cactus white under the moon, and the wind, whining across that endless oceanic land, sang in the screens, and sang him back to sleep.”
Book I’m hoping to read: Barbarian Days by William Finnegan
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
by Annie Dillard
Published in 1974, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek chronicles a year of life in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley—not just Dillard’s, but all life in the area, from protozoa up to the tops of the pines. Dillard stalks muskrats, watches a mantis lay eggs, hikes uphill to watch a thunderstorm, and stares into the ripples of the creek until the horizon makes her dizzy. Coupling her own detailed observations with extensive research on insect and animal life, she is humbled and horrified and overjoyed by nature’s sheer scope of cruelties and intricacies. And she passes on all this abundance and awe in prose that is precise and matter-of-fact as it is dizzyingly immersive.
Read Dillard next to the nearest bit of green you can find—a mossy wood, a backyard tree, even a house plant, if that’s all you’ve got. Sit in the shade and watch leaf-shadows play on the print. Lie on the grass and let ants wander over the pages, or flies hover and light on the spine. To emerge from this book is to wake from a dream world into one that’s the same, and real, and better. In Dillard’s words: “Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock—more than a —a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”
Book I’m hoping to read: The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Labor of Love
By Moira Weigel
I should warn you: Choosing Labor of Love as a beach read might result in annoyance for the people accompanying you on your getaway. When I brought the book with me on a recent outing with friends, I couldn’t help but interrupt the peaceful silence, repeatedly (sorry, guys), to share some of the historical tidbits the book offers: “Whoa, in Colonial America, they had this thing called ‘bundling,’ which allowed courting couples to sleep next to each other—but, like, in sacks, with drawstrings at the neck!” “Until the 1920s, having a ‘personality’ was considered evidence of a mental disorder!” “Did you know that TGI Friday’s was the first singles bar?”
One moral here may be “do not bring me on your beach vacation,” but the other one is much more interesting: Dating is, in the broad arc of human affairs, an extremely recent invention. It is what happened, Labor of Love argues, when courtship left the private sphere—the realm of relatives and religion and meddling neighbors—and entered the public. And it is also what happened when love became a market phenomenon. It’s no accident, Moira Weigel writes, that many Americans are accustomed to using the language of economics—“on the market,” “sealing the deal,” “damaged goods,” “getting the milk for free”—when it comes to partnering up. It’s also no accident that, even in this age of increased gender fluidity and of ever-more-normalized feminism, the market logic of dating still tends to take for granted the notion that it is women who are the goods on offer: objects to be purchased, ultimately, by men.
Weigel wrote Labor of Love while researching her PhD in comparative literature; the book is inflected, as most good academic works will tend to be, with its author’s deep knowledge of her subject matter. And yet: Beach reading this is! Really! The book’s sweeping look at dating incorporates references to The Real Housewives and the flair factories of TGI Friday’s as easily as it does its analyses of Marxism and feminism and parietal rules—all in the service of exploring what any modern-day Tinderer will know to be true: that dating is, on top of everything else, work. But Labor of Love makes its case as cheerfully as it does compellingly. Weigel’s book is both intense and lighthearted, by turns easy and surprising, offering momentary delights as well as subtle hints about the future. It’s everything, really, that a good date should be.
Book I’m hoping to read: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Before the Fall
By Noah Hawley
Here’s the thing about the mystery/suspense/potboiler genre: I just don’t have the patience for it. When a murder/rape/disappearance happens, why take 200 pages of thinly drawn characters and ridiculous chase scenes to find out what happens? I often just skip to the end. Why wade, after all, through chapters upon chapters of Hercule Poirot questioning everyone but the vicar’s cat?
But Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall isn’t a typical mystery. Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t put it down. The novel imagines that the head of a conservative news channel (ahem, Fox News) is a decent guy with two young kids and an artsy wife. His wife offers a banker friend and an artist acquaintance a ride on the family’s private jet on their way back to New York City. In the first few pages of the book, the plane crashes, killing all but two people on board.
Why did the plane crash? Why did some people survive? Is this really how the very rich live? These are the questions Hawley answers over time, through flashbacks that tell the backstories of each of the plane’s passengers, alongside a fast-paced window into the investigation. He also pokes fun at the 24-hour-news cycle, which mourns, with a vengeance, the death of one of its own.
Hawley is a TV writer, and as such, knows how to do structure in a way that makes the reader stay engaged. You want to know not just why this plane crashed, but why the characters on board have taken the paths they have that brought them to this jet on a foggy summer night. And by keeping two characters alive, he keeps you invested in their futures, too. Is the answer to the mystery the most satisfying explanation Hawley could have come up with? Well, no. But the journey of getting there is a fun one, more fun than it would have been to just skip to the end.
Book I’m hoping to read: I Am No One by Patrick Flanery
Shame and Wonder
By David Searcy
The big question about David Searcy's first book, the 2001 novel Ordinary Horror, was whether the protagonist, “a widower about 70 years old,” was at the center of a thriller or kind of losing it in a satire of suburban loneliness. Now approaching 70 himself, the Dallas author’s debut essay collection is similarly given to ambiguity and hidden meanings.
Searcy has perfected a voice that sounds like it's coming from somewhere inside you. It’s weird and wise, weightless and bone deep; a style distilled from what he calls “that engulfing moment of self-consciousness and doubt.”
Lesser essayists would be grateful just for Searcy’s aperçus. Of an oak tree initialed to death by lovers, he writes, “We are residual, after all.” On modernist design: “It’s so strange how things look strange devoid of ornament.” On finding a prize in your cereal box: “That something-out-of-nothing sort of power and unlikeliness—to which a child, so recently produced out of that powerful unlikeliness, would be especially sensitive.”
But Searcy’s thoughts aren’t just clever. They haunt you with mysteries that point upward. He remembers imagining outer space, at seven, the way science fiction still teaches us to, as “a place from which the world you know has been essentially removed. Where it remains implied, however … And maybe, somehow, amniotic.”
Sixty-three years later, Searcy writes with that same sense of pervasion, always conjuring what’s unseen yet felt. In an essay about a Chevrolet El Camino, for instance, he asks, like a fish in water, “Is metaphor everywhere? Of course it is. Once consciousness, once meaning gets a start it keeps on going. You get literacy and metaphor and God.”
Book I’m hoping to read: Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams
Close to Shore: A True Story of Terror in an Age of Innocence
By Michael Capuzzo
One hundred years ago this month, a 23-year-old man named Charles Epting Vansant swam into the Atlantic Ocean, near the New Jersey resort town of Beach Haven. A capable swimmer, Vansant was splashing with a retriever far beyond his fellow bathers when the dog turned suddenly and paddled back to shore. Soon, sunbathers began calling out in alarm, but their voices must have been muffled by the crash of the surf. Vansant, who was by then alone in the water, started swimming in after the dog—unaware that the fin of a great white shark had pierced the waves and was moving swiftly toward him. He had just reached the shallows when the shark seized his left leg, fatally severing his femoral artery as a crowd watched in horror.
Vansant’s death marked the first in a remarkable series of shark attacks in New Jersey waters over 12 days in July 1916—events brought chillingly to life in Michael Capuzzo’s 2001 non-fiction thriller, Close to Shore. Of the five people bitten that summer, four died. One man was so brutalized that a beachgoer, misidentifying his body and the spreading stain of his blood, alerted lifeguards to a capsized canoe with a red hull floating out at sea. Disconcertingly, two of the victims were swimming in a creek, some 15 miles inland, when the shark came upon them. In a sort of true-life, Victorian take on Jaws (in fact, these attacks inspired Peter Benchley’s novel), Capuzzo compellingly captures the panic that spread across the country a century ago, as sensational reports of a man-eating shark seeped inland from the Jersey coast. While the attacks of 1916 have largely been forgotten, the radical wariness of the open ocean that they injected into the American psyche remains strong today.
Close to Shore has its faults: moments of high drama are sometimes undercut by purple prose, and while Capuzzo conducted extensive research, certain details strain the limits of the reader’s trust that the book is a work of pure non-fiction. (How could Capuzzo possibly know that Vansant, who bled out shortly after being dragged half-conscious from the sea, felt a shiver travel down his spine seconds before the shark bit him?) But the vivid descriptions of the attacks—and the jolt of horrified empathy they deliver—tap successfully into a primal, and deeply gripping, fear of these ancient fish, instilling something just short of awe. Close to Shore gives new meaning to the term beach reading—emphasis on beach.
What I want to read next: Moby Dick by Herman Melville
The Paying Guests
By Sarah Waters
In Waters’s sixth novel, it’s 1922 in the London suburbs, the Great War is over, sons and brothers have been killed, the family money is gone, the servants have been let go, the country is changing, and 26-year-old Frances Wray is left with her aging mother to bat about their large, upper-crust home doing chores, making meals, and reading (and doing more chores). It’s immediately clear that Frances is a singular character: an unrepentant lesbian in an era when that was considered deviant, and a flawed but reflective, self-aware, and deeply good person.
When the Wray women take in boarders to make ends meet, Frances’s most personal truth is laid bare. Those tenants, Leonard and Lily Barber, are a young couple a few social-class rungs down the ladder from the Wrays, who are gratified by their new grand home. There are still chores, meals, and reading to pass the day, but now these tasks are amplified by the Barbers’ curious footsteps overhead, and by chance encounters in the hall, the kitchen, the yard. Even though it’s easy to get lost in the sleepy fog of chores and innocent spying, those footsteps overhead feel dangerous—and that fog begins to lift.
There’s a delicious affair at the center of the 2014 novel that starts joyfully, lustily. But Waters edges that happy love into darker territory—before, like springing a trap, she gives the reader an unexpected and accidental murder. (There’s a harrowing cover-up that brilliantly mirrors Frances’s daily chores.) The crime binds Frances to Lily in an uncomfortable pact that creates so much tension and excitement you suddenly can’t read fast enough. Waters pivots from a tale of English manners to a literary thriller swaddled in secrets on a dime.
A trial and its attendant anxieties shed light on more affairs, a pregnancy, and an illegal abortion—all of which make the reader and Frances question everything that’s come in the first half of the book. Suddenly, details that earlier seemed like anodyne scene-setting are revealed as far more troubling. And Waters has hidden her clues so deftly that the last quarter of the novel reads like a series of epiphanies as each clue slides into place—each one making things worse for Frances. It’s masterfully done.
Book I’m hoping to read: The Trespasser by Tana French
Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching
By Mychal Denzel Smith
What does it mean to be a young black man living in America right now? On the one hand, President Obama’s election is a special piece of my own racial identity and an achievement that connects my own life with the famed struggle of my forefathers and foremothers. On the other, there’s the immediate reality of black people dying in the streets and a national climate that seems increasingly hostile to people who look like me. There’s something that’s both perfectly poetic and perverse about all that, but even now, after having thought about it for years, I can’t really nail down exactly what it is.
Luckily for me and for anyone else interested in this peculiar zeitgeist of black millennial-ness, the world has Mychal Denzel Smith and his wonderful Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching. Falling somewhere in the space between memoir and long-form critical essay, the book evokes the themes of its namesake by Ralph Ellison as a black bildungsroman, with Smith—or a version of him—torn between the twin forces of personal discovery and the responsibility of activism.
Unlike Ellison’s Invisible Man, or many other older explorations of black masculinity and social justice, Smith’s book takes a page from the personal essays that dominate certain online spaces today, breaching topics of misogyny and mental health in a naked and vulnerable way that’s long been at odds with the major formative view of black masculinity. Or, as Smith puts it, “every lesson my father ever taught me came back to the myth.” Smith’s book is about those myths, and how they’re interwoven with a constellation of other factors in our lives. While Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching may not have the answers, its attempt to define the undefined something buzzing about blackness feels like catching lightning in a bottle.
Book I’m hoping to read: The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin
By Daniel Clowes
Clowes’ first graphic novel in over five years might be his weirdest one yet. It’s a love story for the ages, one that quite literally jumps across the psychedelic fabric of space and time as we know it. Jack, the book’s bitterly cynical protagonist, travels through time to solve a crime that could save everything he holds dear, stumbling upon some strange truths along the way, and never once missing the chance for some dark comedic insight.
While Patience is Clowes’ first foray into sci-fi and the fantastical, his pastel-toned panels are instantly recognizable: They radiate the same jaded sense of American suburbia that made his breakthrough work, Ghost World, a cult classic. The book makes space for some pretty remarkable existential revelations, but Clowes’ Bukowski-esque narration never feels smug. He seems to be enjoying himself with the art here, taking his time with colorful double-page spreads that illustrate dimensional shapeshifting in kaleidoscopic detail.
Patience is an irreverent, paranoid journey which, at its heart, speaks to the basic human fear of loneliness, and the desire to reshape our pasts.
Book I’m hoping to read: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
By Witold Gombrowicz
Cosmos begins with the meandering adventures of Witold and Fuchs, two Polish students who travel through the countryside to avoid fights with family and coworkers that the author only sparingly elucidates. The students are both bored and overstimulated; their reaction to their mundane surroundings is to analyze every last detail as if each were a sign of something significant. So when they stumble upon a dead sparrow in the woods, hanging by a wire from a tree, their inclination toward analysis leads them to imagine themselves at the center of a rich mystery concerning the bird’s bizarre death.
Comedy ensues as Witold and Fuchs begin to scrutinize every last detail of their surroundings, certain that any passing element must be part of a vast configuration of potential clues. Witold, who narrates the story, writes that they encounter an “overwhelming abundance of connections, associations … How many meanings can one glean from hundreds of weeds, clods of dirt, and other trifles?” As the collection of clues grows exponentially, Witold and Fuch’s search to unravel the mystery of the bird begins to possess them.
In a way, Cosmos is a mystery told in reverse. Part of the joy in reading it is that you must navigate a host of tenuously related details and determine whether the main characters are comically—perhaps psychotically—overreaching, or if they have indeed stumbled upon a great, cosmic mystery.
The winner of the 1967 International Prize for Literature, Cosmos is consistently absurd in a frequently funny but often disturbing manner. Perhaps most alarming: As the characters struggle to analyze the tiniest details of body language, you’re forced to confront how absurd your own search for signs in the most mundane details of life may well be.
Book I want to read next: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Gods Behaving Badly
By Marie Philips
It's been a few years since the summer when I devoured 2007’s Gods Behaving Badly, and the fog-roll march of time since then has obscured many details of the reading experience in my memory—save for an overriding feeling of total delight.
Philips imagines that the Greek gods of myth were not only real people but real people still alive in the 2000s, hiding out in a London group house where they hold down unglamorous jobs and squabble with one another using their ever-more depleted powers. A dowdy pair of mortals enters their lives when the playboy of the house, Apollo, gets struck by one of Eros's arrows, creating an unlikely love triangle that ends up necessitating an adventure to the underworld. It’s a high-concept book that provides simple pleasures—the kind of breezy, irreverent comedy with a hint of poignancy that can make life on Earth, briefly, more divine.
Book I’m hoping to read: A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James
The Arab of the Future
By Riad Sattouf
“The Arab of the future goes to school!” proclaims Abdel-Razak, the father of Riad Sattouf, as he loads his reluctant family onto a plane for their next adventure. The Arab of the Future, a graphic memoir from Sattouf, offers a darkly comic look at his nomadic early life, which was guided by his father’s north star, pan-Arabism, before being thrown off-course by the stark realities their family encountered abroad.
Born to a French mother, Clémentine, and a Syrian father who met when both were students at the Sorbonne, Riad, a well-known cartoonist formerly at Charlie Hebdo, spent his younger years going wherever his father willed. As the only child from his large family to go to college, Abdel-Razak fervently believed in the power of education to transform the Arab world and help others “escape from religious dogma.”
Blindly passionate about the task at hand, and less than sympathetic to his family’s desires, Abdel-Razak spends their time in Libya explaining the unfamiliar, excusing the questionable, and justifying the unfair, including some of the ideals Muammar Qaddafi set forth in The Green Book. But even Abdel-Razak has had enough when Qaddafi proposes “teachers would now be farmers and farmers would be teachers.” After a quick pit stop in France, the family is off to a Syria ruled by Hafez al-Assad. Abdel-Razak, away for 17 years, no longer quite fits in, Clémentine is uncomfortable with the local traditions, and Riad is teased mercilessly for his mixed heritage and Western ways.
The Arab of the Future takes the reader into everyday life in Libya and Syria through the eyes of a young Riad, but most striking about the memoir is the shifting lens through which he sees his father. Abdel-Razak is “fascinated by politics” and compulsively drawn to these countries dominated by powerful rulers. In retrospect, Sattouf is just as fascinated by Abdel-Razak, and his memoir offers a study of the similar power his father wielded over his own family.
For a book encompassing weighty topics, including the struggle to assimilate and life dictated by political upheaval, The Arab of the Future still manages to feel buoyant, thanks in part to the artwork itself. It’s Sattouf’s irreverent humor, though, that strikes the right balance and makes for an amusing and thought-provoking summer read.
Book I’m hoping to read: The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
By A.S. Byatt
Possession is a work of beautiful intricacy. Two literary scholars, Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, discover letters exchanged by two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Using these letters, Roland and Maud reinterpret the poets’ verses to trace a clandestine love affair between them. In addition to prose, the novel comprises poetry in the Victorian style, as well as diaries, academic scholarship, and letters—all Byatt’s fictional creations, though they feel authentic.
Another author might struggle to blend such complexities of plot and form into one cohesive picture. But Byatt manages to do so. Throughout Possession, hers is a style as easily seen as it is read. She describes, for example, a girl on a stained-glass window: “One cheek moved in and out of a pool of grape-violet as she worked. Her brow flowered green and gold. Rose-red and berry-red stained her pale neck and chin and mouth.”
No matter that Byatt’s lengthy novel might possess its reader for long periods. In the end, it also offers a picture to rival any summer sunset.
Book I’m hoping to read: The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann
By Han Kang
Some individuals decide to stop eating meat because of its perceived cruelty towards animals; for Yeong-hye, the central character of The Vegetarian, her choice brings into stark relief the brutish nature of her own species. Yeong-hye, a South Korean housewife described (by her own husband, nonetheless) as “unremarkable,” wakes up one morning from grotesque nightmares and declares herself an herbivore. Vegetarianism isn’t widespread in South Korea, and Yeong-hye’s decision prompts confusion, concern, and fury from her family, which culminates in violence.
Apart from brief, often surrealistic interjections, the story isn’t told from Yeong-hye’s perspective. By focusing on the reactions of those around her, The Vegetarian emphasizes the repercussions individuals (particularly women) face when making decisions about their own bodies. The first two sections of the three-part novella offer the viewpoints of Yeong-hye’s husband and brother-in-law, respectively; both see her body as a reflection of their own identity and ego. Her husband believes a more conventional wife would help him rise at his company; instead, Yeong-hye refuses to wear a bra to an awkward business dinner where her dietary habits become a subject of derision and unease.
The unconventionality that infuriates Yeong-hye’s husband ultimately attracts her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful artist supported by his business-savvy wife. He seeks to use Yeong-hye’s body as a literal canvas—blurring the line between artistic expression and erotic proprietorship. The final section offers a view from his wife, Yeong-hye’s sister, whose genuine concern for her sibling further complicates the distinction between paternalism and invasive control by calling into question Yeong-hye’s own agency and sanity. By refusing to eat animals, Yeong-hye turns the socially accepted carnage of meat-eating toward herself.
Book I’m hoping to read: Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
Flash Fiction International
Edited by James Thomas, Robert Shapard, and Christopher Merrill
At just 190 pages, featuring stories as long as a few pages or as short as a single paragraph, Flash Fiction International looks like a quick read. It isn’t.
These are stories that will leave you gasping for air, reeling, taking a walk around the block to clear your head. Flash fiction—also known as “microfiction,” “very short stories,” or “wait, it’s over already?”—is a genre as old as the parable, but it has come to new life on the Internet, and is flourishing in little-seen corners around the globe, from Israel (source of the satirical first selection, “The Story, Victorious”) to Cuba (Virgilio Piñera’s darkly funny “Insomnia”) to Taiwan (the fragile, tragic “Butterfly Forever”).
Flash Fiction International invites the reader to take in at a glance the breadth and inventiveness of modern fiction, what life and imagination is like everywhere in the world all at once. These stories are bullets, fired at lethal speed into the mind.
Book I’m hoping to read: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
By Marilynne Robinson
I came to Lila after I’d been given a copy of Gilead, the first book in Robinson’s trilogy centered on the town of Gilead, Iowa. From Barack Obama to Leslie Jamison, many people have written about the ways in which these novels (as well as Home, the second book of the three) have mattered to them.
But what sticks in my mind from Lila is the image at the novel’s opening: a sick, crying child is left on a cold porch. A woman wraps the child in her shawl, names her Lila, and the two wander across the Midwest “with no place to go.”
An adult Lila drifts into Gilead, and wanders into a church service led by the much older Reverend John Ames (the main character in Gilead). The rest of the book follows Ames and Lila’s courtship and marriage, as well as Lila’s struggle to reconcile her new, more secure circumstances with a past marked by instability, violence, and loneliness.
While working her way through the Bible for the first time, Lila comes back to the book’s beginning via a cryptic proverb in “Ezekiel” about an abandoned child. The scene echoes the book’s first pages, and serves as a loose metaphor for the shape of Lila’s life. As she wrestles with the story, Lila begins to create a tenuous peace with her past, and open up about her ghosts—including a stint in a St. Louis whorehouse and a painful parting with her adopted mother.
None of Lila’s reflections is neatly wrapped up: there is no clean narrative at the end, and that disorder doesn’t hurt her newfound peace. As Leslie Jamison wrote for The Atlantic, Robinson’s writing doesn’t shy away from “complexities—the solitude that endures inside intimacy, the sorrow that persists beside joy.” Interwoven with thoughtful passages on faith, loneliness, and a few nuggets of Christian theology, Lila makes for a powerful, and ultimately uplifting read.
Book I’m hoping to read: Maurice by E.M. Forster
Our Sister Republics
By Caitlin Fitz
Americans often place themselves—I should say, ourselves—at the forefront of history. When high-school teachers discuss Western European political philosophy authored hundreds of years before 1776, they sometimes present it as a steady march toward prosperity and freedom—a march that irreversibly ends in George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and the postwar American Century.
Caitlin Fitz tells the story of one the first times Americans contorted global events to make it fit this happy story. In the 1810s and 1820s, South America was rocked by a series of anti-imperial revolutions. U.S. Americans adopted the revolutionaries’ cause as their own—sending money and arms, drinking to their health on July 4, even christening their towns and sons “Bolivar.” U.S. politicians, businessmen, newspaper editors, and even wives saw the South American revolutions as an extension of the spirit of 1776.
As Fitz tells, though, these joyous feelings splintered once some U.S. Americans saw their own country less as a radical project in equality and more of a testament to white exceptionalism. Suddenly, the rebellions in the South seemed not just anti-imperial, but antislavery—and U.S. support faded accordingly. Fitz’s elegantly written history tells an early American story of reverse racial progress.
Book I’m hoping to read: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
By Paul Beatty
“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man,” the unnamed narrator says in The Sellout, “but I’ve never stolen anything.” With that, it’s off to the races in what quickly became the most memorable book I read this year. The book tells the story of a narrator with a sensitive soul, born in the fictional “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens, a city in the southern outskirts of LA. He was raised by a single father, a sociologist who imposed racially charged experiments upon him in his youth. The guy spends his days growing robust crops of fruit and weed (he gives his strains names like Perspicacity and Anglophobia). Ultimately, after a series of unfortunate events, he decides to (with the help of a few excellent supporting characters) reinstate slavery in his own home and segregate the local high school—actions that bring him to be charged at the Supreme Court.
The Sellout is a brutally fun read, but don't misunderstand it as unserious. Some scenes are all too real; toward the beginning of the book, one character is shot dead by a police officer for essentially driving while black. Beatty delivers brilliant humor with a caustic bite, and parts can be uncomfortable to sit through. I paused on so many pages just to unpack the myriad historical and pop-culture references. But it was unlike anything else I’d read before, at once side-splitting and thought-provoking. It’s a book that forcibly ejects you out of your comfort zone, and once you’re there, you’re going to want to linger a while.
Book I’m hoping to read: White Teeth by Zadie Smith