#34 Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth

29939138Deb Olin Unferth’s stories read like the layers of an onion, with each sentence the narrative is built up and peeled back, meaning is revealed, the story is changed, keeps changing, until the reader gets to the funky, quirky core. A nugget of surprise lingers at the center, waiting to be discovered, embedded to shock.

Highlights of the collection: A struggling adjunct teacher longing to tell her sad breakup tale to students invites them to share the worst thing that’s happened to them with unexpected results in “Voltaire Night.” A perpetually wandering, confidentially clueless couple gets led into the jungle at gunpoint in “Stay Where You Are.” In “Wait Till You See Me Dance,” an unremarkable teacher with unremarkable students tries to find self worth and purpose.

Amid these standout stories were a number of shorter pieces. The back cover calls these “intoxicating,” but they didn’t resonate or have the same impact for me as the longer stories.

I love Graywolf Press. I discovered Wait Till You See Me Dance on their Instagram feed; and Graywolf just kills it, consistently publishing awesome books, including: Citizen, The Argonauts, LOOK, The Empathy Exams, and 300 Arguments and Ongoingness, to name a few.

#33 Swimmer Among the Stars by Kanishk Tharoor

29875892-1The stories in Kanishk Thardoor’s Swimmer Among the Stars are steeped in history. Many read like fables, told by voices or by characters who carry the past, their people, their language, their lives, forward with strength and fortitude. Thadoor is a classic story-teller, his writing is lyrical, assured, tender.

In this collection the stories revolve around movement, of civilization, of refugees, of territories and borders, of affections, of language. In “The Mirrors of Iskandar” Alexander the Great moves across countries, conquering land, people, the sea, writing history. In “Swimmer Among the Stars” the narrator, the last speaker of a forgotten language, moves between ideas and words, the past and the present, giving voice to lost stories. In “Tale of the Teahouse” inhabitants of a city live, love, eat, and speculate as Gengis Kahn moves closer and closer to their walls, marching towards destruction.

My favorite story in the bunch was “Elephant at Sea” in which an elephant is shipped from India to Morocco, a gift to a princess. Tharoor perfectly captures the poignant relationship between the elephant and the mahout, the elephant’s joyful love of the sea, and the touching absurdity of their voyage.

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#32 A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

29939230As I turned page 623 to the last paragraphs of V.E. Schwab’s A Conjuring of Light, I’ll admit that I got sad in my heart… sad to say goodbye to this wonderful series (this is the third of a trilogy, I wrote about books 1 and 2 here and here) and these great characters, sad to leave this magical world.

As a bookseller I snobbishly ignored the whole fantasy/sci-fi section in favor of literary fiction (hey, I was in my 20’s, I thought fiction was more, I don’t know, important); In the past year I’ve been delving into the fantasy genre more and more. And here’s the thing about fantasy (based on the books I’ve read thus far): They’re FUN. Remember reading for fun? Not for school, or book club, not for what reading a certain book says about you as a reader. For fun, because the book makes you happy.

This series made me happy. Highly entertaining, delightfully transporting, these books are the perfect escape. I don’t know about you, but at the current moment, escaping into a book, into a world woven with magic and mystery, sounds pretty awesome just about all the damn time.

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#31 Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

30688435The release of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid couldn’t be more timely. It follows two characters, Saeed and Nadia, as the unnamed city they live in is torn apart by violence and occupied by militants. They flee, becoming two refugees among many seeking asylum, a place to live, food to eat, a space to call their own.

The current refugee crisis echoes loudly through Exit West, as Hamid’s characters encounter folks willing to help them on their journey, and “nativists,” those people who want the refugees out of their neighborhoods, out of their country. Conflict arises. Loyalties are tested.

Hamid has crafted – and I use crafted purposefully here as Hamid’s writing craft is truly that of a master – a beautifully written story. Set in a world that is at once very recognizable, and vaguely futuristic, refugees escape through door portals, drones are a constant overhead, surveillance is everywhere, and known cities and places – London, Mykonos, Marin Country – are slightly changed, both familiar and strange.

Excellent read.

#30 Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

33585392 When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s childhood friend became a mother she asked the author for advice on how to raise her daughter to be a feminist. Dear Ijeawele is  Adichie’s response.

A quick read, Adichie’s letter offers up fifteen suggestions, including teaching her to love books, imbuing her with self-reliance, informing her about systems of oppression, talking to her about sex, and encouraging her to question language and to reject “likeability.”

I will read anything Adichie writes. Her writing is consistently smart and accessible, powerful and timely. And this is no exception.

I agree with my friend Guinevere who wrote in her review on goodreads: “While it is written as a letter of advice for raising a baby girl, every word was valuable to me as the parent of a young boy … it is equally important to raise boys to be feminists.” YES. This is not just a book for parents of girls. In order to create a more gender equal world for our children, parents also need to be raising boys who are informed, who call out inequality when they see it, who challenge gender roles, and who don’t belittle, take advantage of, or oppress the girls/women around them. The fight for equality cannot be fought by women and girls alone.

 

#29 The Magicians by Lev Grossman

6101718I expected to fly through The Magicians. The premise sounded so entertaining: A smart but lonely teenager discovers he’s a magician when he stumbles upon, auditions, and gets accepted into magician school where there’s no shortage of teenage intrigue, sexual tension, and MAGIC. Sounds fun, right?

I didn’t love it. And I didn’t fly through it.

About halfway through the book I found myself wanting the experience of reading it to be over, to know the ending and be done with it. Partly because of the selfish cluelessness of the main character, I just couldn’t muster the interest to care about what happened to him and his magician friends in the end. Meh.

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#28 Look by Solmaz Sharif

26114310.jpgLook was a birthday gift from my dear friend Anna, and like most books of poems, I’ve dipped in and out of it for months, savoring a poem here and there, letting the collection sink in over time.

The personal and political fuse in this strong and fiercely elegant book. In it, Sharif takes on war and terror, the effects of the violence on family, on the body, on the mind, on a people.

Sharif’s poems hold an electric, combustible power, the pages light up with the friction, a language of conflict; windmills straddle poems with bombers, fascism shares space with dinner party waltzes, strawberries mingle with grenade pins.

In an attempt to find the words, better words, to write about this collection, I opened to a random page, and was struck once again. This is what I read, from a poem called “Drone:”

: I say Hello NSA when I place a call

: somewhere a file details my sexual habits

: some tribunal may read it all back to me

: Golsorkhi, I know the cell they will put me in

: they put me onto a crooked pile of others to rot

: is this what happens to a brain born into war

: a city of broken teeth

: the thuds of falling

: we have learned to sing a child calm in a bomb shelter

: I am singing to her still

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#27 Moonglow by Michael Chabon

26795307Michael Chabon was the first contemporary fiction author I read as a teenager. At 15 or 16, after reading mostly classics up until that point, I grabbed The Mysteries of Pittsburgh off my mom’s bookcase. I loved it. I was hooked. I went on, through the years, to read Wonderboys: Again, loved it. Werewolves in their Youth: Great. The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay: Epic, again, loved it. I skipped The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, though I’m not sure why. And then Telegraph Avenue… Couldn’t finish it. I found the writing too forcefully “writerly.” I stumbled on overly wordy sentences and visuals that jarred me out of the book. I experienced some of this jarring, this lack of flow, with Moonglow. It took me four long days to get through, and I never fully lost myself in the story.

The story itself is a patchwork, with Chabon using his grandfather’s own history (growing up Jewish in Philadelphia, his experiences during WWII, meeting and marrying Chabon’s grandmother, his time in prison, his last years) as the foundation of the plot. As with any narrative of this kind, to tell it requires embellishment and the personal story is woven with fictions.

Moonglow is a dense, multi-layered book, and there’s so much I could write about it here: the wealth of moon/space references and allusions, the fascinating/frightening WWII passages, the function of memory in familial narrative and the stories we tell to survive, the effect of war and violence on the psyche… So while I didn’t lose myself in the story, while I struggled at times with the punchy oddness of word choice and felt like I had to work to reach the end, I give Moonglow high marks for evocative scenes, narrative structure, and historical scope.

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#26 Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

20170404I don’t usually go for dystopian fiction. Oryx and Crake? Couldn’t get past page 30… In general, I just don’t love end-of-the-world hopelessness, desolate landscapes, and the constant fear that accompanies being one of the few survivors of an apocalyptic change, be it viral or chemical or other.

After so many recommendations and great reviews, however, I decided to pick up Station Eleven. Set in the lead-up and 20-year aftermath of a cataclysmic flu that wipes out much of Earth’s population, it follows various characters as they scatter and attempt to survive in the hours, days, and years after a performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear in Toronto.

In the years after the flu pandemic, we get visions of what the world is like from the perspective of Kirsten, one of the children in that production of King Lear in Toronto, who is now an adult player in a traveling symphony/theater that treks from one small enclave of survivors to another bringing music and Shakespearean theater. Post-pandemic, what used to be the U.S. is a place without electricity, planes, phones, the internet, without laws; cities are creepy monuments to a past civilization, full of skeletons, acres of abandoned cars on highways, looted stores and houses, and the echoes of half-realized lives. The visuals that Emily St. John Mandel creates of this world are memorable and terrifying, and it’s a fascinating, compulsive read.

The middle flagged a bit and I kept thinking move it along, move it along. I figured out the reveal pretty early on, and the ending was a bit too tidy and unrealistic for my taste, but overall I give it high marks for story, and character development… and for making me stay up, wide-eyed, two nights in a row imagining what it would be like to live in a Station Eleven world.

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