I’ve been on a tear lately, and I can’t wait to tell you all about the amazing books I’ve read. I’ve made it my mission to mix it up this year–books in translation, non-fiction, new voices–the lot–and to say I’ve found some gems would be an understatement. Let’s get into it, shall we?
Imagine your husband leaves you for no reason at all other than you are someone to be left. In Yuko Tsushima’s spare, bleak, and remarkable novel, Territory of Light, a young mother grapples with abandonment and comes undone over the course of a year. She moves with her small daughter into a cheap apartment in Tokyo and as she realizes she has few friends, no loves, and a frightened and confused child, she slowly becomes untethered and unhinged. Everyone with a pulse is a potential lifeline, a thing to which she could barnacle herself.
She drinks, she drifts, she lashes out at her daughter and tries to find some semblance of normalcy. And when she tries to divorce her husband, the patriarchy swoon in to remind her that a divorced woman is an untouchable, cold product. Better to remain married and take what scraps she can get.
Granted, this is far from a happy book but it’s a beautiful one. I’ve read so many fast-paced thrillers and corporate business books that it felt good to just settle into a story that had no plot–where the wandering, the coming undone is the story.
Over the course of a few months, Nora McInerny loses her father, her unborn child, and her husband to brain cancer. I know loss all too well, but I can never imagine so many lives lost in succession. But Nora has a young son to take care of, a legacy to tend to and a life to assemble back together.
A few months after her husband dies, she meets someone who reminds her of what it feels like to laugh and love. Their families combine like some sort of mythical Brady Bunch and all is well but is it because Nora still loves her dead husband and should she love someone so quickly? Is she trashing what she had with her husband or diminishing it? She examines old and new loves and loss in No Happy Endings.
I love the way Nora McInerny navigates the terrain of loss, shame, performative culture, and being a hot mess trying to wade her way to normal. This memoir was funny, poignant, smart, and beautifully written. It’s the salve you need to remind you that there is life after devastating loss.
I have loved Amy Hempel’s minimalist writing for over fifteen years. Even now I remember the opening line from one of my favorite stories of all time, “The Harvest”: The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me. Everyone can fawn over Raymond Carver and the Gordon Lish school, but I think Amy Hempel is the star of the lot. She has a way of being economic, almost surgical, with language. Wielding words like a scalpel, pressure-cooking stories to the point of combustion, and her latest collection, Sing to It, is extraordinary. “A Full-Service Shelter” is a searing critique about how we discard our animals told through a woman intent on loving them down to the bone–even when they’re on the verge of death.
In “Cloudland,” a woman lives an adrift existence, forever wondering about the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was 18 and shuttled away to a home in Maine with other unwed, pregnant young mothers. The story is a classic Amy Hempel story as it centers on the disconnection between mothers and daughters and the tremendous want they can’t communicate. Towards the end of the story, she learns that the home she temporarily lived in, the people to whom she entrusted her just-born child, was killing children who weren’t adopted. While this minor detail is certainly chilling, the story has a water-like, ethereal quality to it. If you love beautiful writing, you will love Amy Hempel.
I have no shame in saying that I’ve read all of Fiona Barton’s books and they are AMAZING. The players weave in and out of unsolved cases–mainly a police detective and a sharp journalist, Kate Waters, who’s always after the breaking story.
In The Child, the remains of a baby are discovered, decades later, in an abandoned construction site. Could they be of the baby who was kidnapped from a couple who still mourns the loss of their child stolen from them after the mother just gave birth? Could it be the baby a teenager buried after having been raped by the man dating her mother?
Barton is masterful at pacing and weaving disparate narratives. And the payoff is always satisfying. While I loved The Child least of her trilogy, it was still completely worth the read.
If you love thrillers, get involved with Fiona Barton.
OMG. Why wasn’t my book published in 2019 where everyone wants to read about the woman serial killer? I don’t believe in psychics (I’m a New Yorker, after all), but one told me that the timing of my second book wasn’t fortuitous. It’s “not ready,” the psychic said and was she right.
My Lovely Wife is possibly one of the finest books I’ve read this year apart from The Water Cure. It centers on the story of a suburban married couple who have maybe fallen into a state of complacent domesticity. What started as an accidental murder turns into a full-on addiction. During the day, the couple parents their two children while at night they plot their latest victim in excruciating detail. Their “date nights” are whispered conversations in the garage about their next victim…until the wife decides to up the stakes and re-creates the murders of an infamous local serial killer who’s never been caught.
However, best-laid plans fall apart as their wont to do, and you’re suddenly wondering who is the true psychopath in the family? Who is unhinged, who is truly evil, and is there a space one could occupy between the two? You will NOT expect in this smart thriller. I loved, loved, loved this book!
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