(Staff Favorites) Becky’s Picks
A LADDER TO THE SKY
If your primary focus in life is fame, what won’t you do to achieve your goal? Is there anyone you won’t hurt, any aspect of life considered sacred? For writer Maurice Swift the answer is no, there is nothing he won’t do and no one he will let stand in the way of his shining literary career. And shine he does. But it is a long, cold fall from the stars back to earth. As much as I loved Cyril Avery, from The Heart’s Invisible Furies, is how much I detest Maurice Swift. And yet I enjoyed my intense disgust towards him, savored it as I was compelled to keep reading Boyne’s parable on the perils and pitfalls of blind ambition.
“What we miss—what we lose and what we mourn—isn’t this that makes us who, deep down, we truly are.” An unnamed woman of certain, also unnamed but implied, age inherits a giant of a dog, a Great Dane named Apollo, in the wake of her friend and mentor’s suicide. These two unlikely companions, as initial apprehension transforms to appreciation, wend their way through grief together. Written as though the woman were addressing her deceased friend, this is a uniquely beautiful and bitingly funny, bitter sweet treatise on grief, the art of writing, the state of the current literary landscape, and the powerful love between people and their “pets.” Unforgettable.
What if a fortune teller told you the day of your death when you were just a child? Would belief or disbelief rule your life? The four Gold children each react to their prophesied deaths differently. Simon charges ahead to the San Fransisco of the 1980s, carrying the knowledge of his death in his back pocket but never consulting it. Klara becomes a magician in Las Vegas, treating her own demise as part of a greater magic act, but her greatest trick won’t be death after all. Daniel spends his career as an army doctor fighting the mortality of others. Varya is perhaps the most stubborn nonbeliever of them all, yet her work with longevity research belies her lack of faith in the old woman’s predictions decades before. Each section in this beautiful, heartbreaking book is narrated by a different Gold sibling, and begs deep questions about life, death, immortality, and inevitability. Would knowing the day of your death help you prevent or change it, or is there no intervention big enough to fight the end that comes for us all?
THE END WE START FROM
We are all born from water, from the dark, wet interior of the womb. As a flood consumes England, a young woman gives birth for the first time. The metaphor could feel like a mother spoon-feeding her child, but in Hunter’s stark and powerful prose becomes a poem.. The unnamed narrator and her partner, known as R, struggle to navigate a world remade by both water and parenthood. Their story dissolves and reforms in each distilled paragraph in writing that is achingly beautiful, and is full of a sense of searching and of yearning. Hunter draws from religious texts and mythology from around the globe in her slim but sublime and, ultimately, perfect parable.
DO NOT BECOME ALARMED
Become alarmed…very alarmed! This domestic thriller is a perfect summer read, but also holds up all year. The tropical cruise is everything cousins Nora and Liv want for their families during the busy holiday season, until the children go missing. Switching perspective between the adults and the children, Meloy explores the lengths to which we will go in the face of our deepest fears. This is a smart, readable, and entertaining novel which stays with you.
COUPLE NEXT DOOR
Anne and Marco Conti return from a dinner party at a neighbor’s house to find their infant daughter missing. The investigation leads to unexpected revelations about the couple who, from the outside, appear so perfect. I listened to this thriller on audiobook and it took me a while to realize that my fiance kept wandering into whichever room I happened to be in because he was hooked on the story too. I wouldn’t call it a literary thriller, but it is solid modern fiction. The story is full of twists and has a completely unexpected ending. Great light reading.
THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE
Not since Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has Lisa See written a novel so completely captivating. Li-yan, a tea farmer in rural China, is young and unmarried when she is forced to give up her daughter. Life carries Li-yan far from her village, her traditions and her midwife mother, even as modernity finds its way to the mountainside. But tea runs in Li-yan’s blood and offers her an unexpected, unprecedented, path. Across the globe in California, Haley grows up loved but displaced, and never quite feels like she belongs. All she has of her birth mother isa tea cake printed with unfamiliar Chinese characters. See has woven an unforgettable story of mothers and daughters, identity, and forgiveness. Through the intertwined stories of Haley and Li-yan, she delves into the little-known world of the Akah, and ethnic minority in China, and the history of tea in Asia and around the world. Fascinating and complex.
THE BURNING GIRL
Julia and Cassie are best friends as only prepubescent girls are, in a way that seems to remake the world just for two, that burns brighter and causes more obsession than lust or love, in a way that changes you indelibly and forever. But sometimes growing up means growing apart. Messud beautifully captures the formative female friendship in this suspenseful contemporary coming-of-age story set in a small town in Massachusetts. From realizing the fear inherent in inhabiting a female body, to recognizing the internal lives orbiting our own, Messud says something true about being on the cusp of womanhood. Gorgeous.
Evicted chronicles the evictions of eight families in Milwaukee, families of different sizes and backgrounds, with a shared circumstance. Arlene is a struggling single mother. Scott is a nurse whose back injury led to an opiate addiction. Lamar is a war veteran, recovering addict, double-amputee, and resident father-figure to the boys of his poor neighborhood. Desmond tells complex stories that explore poverty not as a structural or cultural force, but as an interaction between rich and poor. He details the business of eviction, from landlords to eviction courts to the moving crew and storage facilities. Housing is “too fundamental a human need” to be treated as just business, Desmond argues. He proposes solutions, including increasing funding to eviction courts and a universal voucher program, but also declares, “If our cities and towns are rich in diversity–with unique textures and styles, gifts and problems–so too must be our solutions.” This is one of the most important books of the last several years, and won the Pulitzer in 2017.
This intrinsically Irish novel with a twist begins with an orphan. But not just any orphan. Mahoney has an unusual gift: He can see the dead. A mysterious letter left with him as an abandoned infant sends Mahoney to the rural Irish village of his birth, an insular community, distrustful of strangers, with deeply held secrets. What really happened to Mahoney’s mother all those years ago? This is a suspenseful, strange, and wonderfully atmospheric Irish mystery populated with wildly eccentric characters. I read it in a day.
THE HISTORY OF BEES
Three generations, centuries apart, with one unifying problem: Bees. First how to tame them, then how to keep them, then how to survive without them. England, 1851. William’s depression is broken by the quest to design the perfect beehive. Ohio, 2007. George is a bee farmer watching as colonies across the country and the globe disappear. China, 2098. Tao works as a tree pollinator, doing the jobs bees once performed, and dreams of a better life for her son. Until tragedy strikes. This book was a bestseller and award-winner in Norway. What appeals to me in this eco-dystopia is both the plausibility (the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, CCD, is very real), but also its optimism. To say more than that would give too much away. Similar to The Bees and Station Eleven.
A ‘difficult woman’ has become shorthand for one who speaks her mind, who questions patriarchal power, and who refuses to be defined by a standard of femininity. The women who populate Gay’s story collection are all difficult in their own ways–mothers, sisters, lovers, some married and some single, most of flesh and one of glass–yet they are all searching for understanding, for identity, and for ways to make sense of a sometimes nonsensical, cruel world. Some of Gay’s stories are graphic, some are allegorical, and all are important commentaries on what being a female looks and feels like in modern America. If you love Her Body and Other Parties, or the poetry of Rupi Kaur, you must read this.
MY ABSOLUTE DARLING
Turtle Avelston is a remarkable heroine, simultaneously strong and naive, with knowledge of survival skills, weaponry, and the natural world that defies the modern age. She lives with her father, a man broken by time and life and loss, who prepares his daughter to face her greatest enemy–him. Love doesn’t always make sense, and in his debut novel tallent explores the hows and whys of loving someone who seems determined to break you. Tallent has created a world, rough and gritty but vivid with color, that will consume readers until the breathless end. Reminiscent of A Little Life, this is a book you can’t unread, but the marks the story eaves behind makes us better people.
If you love awkward curmudgeons you will fall for Edsel Bronfman. Edsel is 34-years-old, single, and lonelier than he can even admit to himself when a surprise phone call becomes an unexpected lifeline. He has won a free trip to Florida…with a few strings. Now he has 79 days to find a companion to bring with him, or he will lose his prize. With a cast of quirky supporting characters, including a woman who perpetually identifies people by the animal they most remind her of, and Bronfman’s mother (who was a single mother wearing red lipstick at a time when a woman of a certain age were supposed to be sexless house cleaners), this is the quirky, feel-good book of spring 2017, from the author of Big Fish.
Diane Les Becquets
Sometimes we have to get lost to find our way home, but being lost can turn deadly–fast. When Amy Raye Latour, a 32-year-old wife and mother, goes missing on a hunting trip in East Douglas, Colorado, ranger Pru Hathaway feels in her bones that the young woman will do anything to stay alive. Breaking Wild is the story of two women who take to the wilderness and come to terms with the grief of hearts broken too young. Will Pru find the truth about Amy Raye’s disappearance? The chapters alternate between between Amy Raye, in the third-person, and Pru, who narrates in the first-person, which emphasizes Amy Raye’s isolation and heightens the urgency of the narrative. This is a consuming read about the dangerous beauty of the wilderness, and the resilience of women.
HUNGER MAKES ME A MODERN GIRL
In her memoir, entertainer Carrie Brownstein combines complex language with the distilled wisdom of a poet ( or a lyricist in a punk band). Her story is part personal narrative about growing up in the Pacific Northwest during a seminal movement in the music scene, and part chronicle of the punk band Sleater-Kinney. Brownstein’s journey of finding herself as a human and musician is a powerful exploration of the creative self. “We were never trying to deny our femaleness,” she writes of attempting to shake off the female punk band label. “We wanted to expand the notion of what it means to be female.” What I really wanted when I was done reading was a mixtape and a booklist from Brownstein. This is an incredible book, whether or not readers are familiar with Brownstein as a musician and/or comedian.
FATES AND FURIES
In Lotto’s version of how they met she says yes. In Mathilde’s version she says no, which becomes sure, but nothing is ever sure. The decades that follow bring success and failure, luck both good and bad, fate and fury. “Most operas, it is true, are about marriage. Few marriages could be called operatic.” Except for Lotto and Mathilde. Their love is tremendous, consuming and obdurate, yet vulnerable to fate. Still, this novel is about more than the growing pains within a marriage. Lotto’s rise to literary stardom evokes the golden era of theatre–Albee, Williams, and O’Neill. Yet, as a playwright in the 1990s, Lotto is part of a generation of activist playwrights and actors, while mathilde relinquishes her creative spirit to her wifely duties. Separately they tell interesting stories: Woven together, their lives are lightning captured in a jar.
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE
Our story begins in St.-Malo, as bombs rain from the sly–a written assault of the senses–with young Marie-Laure, alone and blind as the house shakes around her. Werner, a German orphan conscripted into Hitler’s Youth and then service, follows the blip of a radio transmission into the heart of the besieged city–a tenacious beacon of hope, and a voice he recognizes from his childhood. Doerr describes the separate, yet connected, journeys of Marie-Laure and Verner take to St.-Malo with the perfect balance of tension and compassion: His writing is rich with metaphor, alive with the political and social state of Hitler’s Europe, and shows readers that goodness, like light, is still present–even in the darkest of times. This is an incredible story, written with an eye for the beauty of language. Doerr won the Pulitzer for literature in 2015.
THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE
In this tale brothers Morozoko and Medved do battle, their fates hitched to the wings of a tiny songbird—a girl born from magical lines into a centuries old prophecy. As dark forces gather in the forest, only young Vasalisa stands between her village and an ancient evil. This is a story about the battles between Christianity and traditional lore, about the need of men to control women, and about the power of women to break away from such a hold. This beautiful, assured debut is as timeless as the Russian folklore the story draws from. Arden blends the history of Christianity in Russia with folklore in a story that both captivates and delivers deep truths about the battles between good and evil, the past and present, and men and women. This book is perfect for readers of Uprooted.