Fall Booknotes 2019
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Berta and Tomás have been sweethearts since early school days, but when Tomás is recruited by Britain’s covert intelligence services while a student at Oxford, a wall of silence is built, leaving Berta able only to imagine where, and who, Tomás is during his increasingly longer absences. Swirling around the tensions between disclosure and withholding, remembering and willful ignorance, this is a tense, yet leisurely-unfurled, story of a marriage dangling in a web of intrigue and secrets. As only Marías can conceive—or conceal. -Peter
The 2019 International Booker Prize went to this spirited novel—the first book by a female Omani author to be translated into English—voiced by many characters and set mostly in and around a village in contemporary Oman. The lives and fates of three sisters growing into adulthood lie at its heart. Their choices, as well as decisions made for them—whom they might marry, how the world beyond their small village might be known—are written with insight and quiet revelation. However distant Oman might seem from here, it will feel closer in reading this wonderful tale. -Rick
In math, division by zero produces an undefined result—a fitting reference for Lara Vapnyar’s latest chimera, which defies easy categorization. Divide Me by Zero is a coming-of-middle-age novel about protagonist Katya, an immigration story, and a tale of grief, all punctuated by notes for an adult self-help math textbook. Yet despite the breadth of its scope, which spans continents and decades, Katya’s journey starts and ends with a mother’s love. Witty and wrenching at turns, Vapnyar’s disarming honesty is perfect for readers who enjoyed the intelligent depth of feeling in Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend. -Elaine
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The American dream is attainable for anyone willing to work hard. This is the mythos that Zink patiently tears apart in Doxology. Beginning in the mid-80s and spanning three decades, Zink's slice-of-life novel follows two generations of Americans who bite into their apple pie only to realize it's made of sludge. Zink doesn't attempt to fight the chaos of our young century; she embraces it. Life is a series of random occurrences, but her characters make meaning and find happiness where they can. Empathetic but unflinching, Doxology encapsulates our modern society, its desires and its disarrays. -Emma
If the title makes you shiver with intrigue and lick your poetry chops, sink your teeth into this meaty read—the truthy slivers of bone are well worth the bite. Tokarczuk's frozen, whispering book packs ageism, sexism, ecology, compassion, cosmic order, and vengeance into a propulsive mystery that slowly unfurls with the thawing of the desolate Polish landscape. With each page, we sink deeper into the mind of our protagonist Janina Duszejko, our sympathies turning with her singular heart as she plunges deeper into her own wilderness. I can't get it out of my head. -Lara
Can state-of-the-art silicone-coated companions simulate human intimacy? Are mortality and meaning inextricable? If we are taking the next evolutionary step into the incorporeal infinite, where will love live? In this wickedly funny and provocative new book, we leap from Mary Shelley as she first conceives of Frankenstein and his monster to Ry Shelley, a trans doctor in the not-so-distant future, who's dangerously entangled with possibly-mad scientist, Dr. Stein. So sharp and stunning and perfectly timed, this book is a must-read manual for our present moment. -Lara
Gideon the Ninth is absolutely ridiculous. It is science fiction steeped in high fantasy, dressed like a goth who just crawled out of a tomb flanked by skeletons making rude hand gestures, darkly and irreverently hilarious, unafraid to get physically or emotionally bloody. Muir sets up a big cast of fantastic, loveable, and love-to-hateable characters in her game of necromantic intrigue—a necromancer and cavalier from each of eight houses vie for the blessing of the Emperor—and knocks the whole bewitchingly macabre ball of bones right out of the park. -Callie
This graphic novel paints a delicate portrait of one couple’s struggle to get pregnant—to build a home and a family—amidst the uncertainty of a precarious future. The setting is unclear, but near to our own: a pseudo-dystopia inspired by the social and political tensions of today. Davis’s storytelling is paired with thoughtful imagery that evokes the kind of intimacy that I look for in a good book. The Hard Tomorrow is another example of Davis’s ability to tell an emotionally-grounded, uniquely human story, which is why she continues to be one of my favorite graphic artists working today. -Dev
Set here in Seattle, this debut from a local author is a fresh take on the zombie apocalypse, which finds an unlikely narrator in the form of a domesticated crow named . . . well, S.T., for short. His snappy tale strikes a nice balance between irreverent and heartwarming as he navigates (and snarks) his way through the horrors of a post-apocalyptic Emerald City, with many a nod to local landmarks. Witty and wise, Hollow Kingdom focuses on the legacy of humanity as embodied by our animal companions. There’s a lot to love in this gem of a book! -Chester
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If True Grit had been written by Isabel Allende, it might read something like this larger-than-life book! A non-traditional Western with elements of magical realism, Inland offsets the barrenness of the desert setting with lush prose and vivid details. Set in 1893, the braided narrative follows an indomitable frontierswoman and a former outlaw as they struggle through life. They are haunted people, both literally and figuratively, and I was drawn to them immediately. It’s been eight years since The Tiger’s Wife came out, but this gritty and mystical masterpiece was worth the wait. -Lauren
The second novel from Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah is a fictionalized rendering of the actual transportation of Scottish explorer David Livingstone’s remains, 1500 miles on foot through the interior of Africa, back to Britain. While the popular record reduces his companions to two mononyms, Chuma and Susi, Gappah embraces the dozens of companions that actually accompanied him, breathing African life and lives into a previously sparse and Euro-centric legacy. A beautiful confrontation of the imperial gaze, this novel should be on everyone’s reading list this fall. -Justin
As the title implies, Red at the Bone is a raw and tender book. Through her characters’ memories of longing, regret, pain, and joy, Jacqueline Woodson explores the vulnerability that is inherent in love and the power of legacies that echo through generations. Narration is passed between family members and the voices are all so distinct, yet harmonious, the overall effect is that of a perfectly balanced chorus. With Woodson’s reverent attention to detail and clean writing style, this warm and beautiful story of ordinary people is elevated to the extraordinary. -Lauren
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Mary Doria Russell’s historical novel is a well-researched, moving portrait of a community of copper miners trying to unionize in Calumet, Michigan around the time of World War I. The miners and their families fought and sometimes died for an eight-hour workday, decent working conditions, and other rights taken for granted by modern workers. This novel foregrounds some forgotten details, such as the role of women as community organizers and of the press in creating support for fighting well-funded opposition. This is a powerful, relevant novel, told through the eyes of unforgettable characters. -Karen
What does it mean to live through historical crisis after the so-called end of history? The Topeka School, Ben Lerner’s latest in his constellation of autofictions, posits this very question. This story of a young poet growing up in middle America is a tragic interrogation of the violence of our current crisis and a lacerating critique of the white masculinity at the heart of so much of that violence. Moving in its intelligence, openness, and vitality, this is Lerner at his best, making the familiar not only strange, but also and perhaps more importantly, historical and political. -Sam W.
Fans of Coates's autobiographical writing and incisive journalism may take great pleasure in immersing themselves in his debut novel that features the plight of Hiram Walker, a young man born into slavery who is blessed with photographic recall of mystic proportions. Set in mid-19th century Virginia, Coates's story is laden with an evocative language that is intricate in its structure, laying the groundwork for an ambitiously imaginative tale of liberation, love, and the incendiary desire to dismantle the systems of enslavement that have severed bloodlines for generations. -Blair
World, here is the mythical African-American town of Cross River, Maryland, where the son of God plays in a jazz band, an indentured robot in blackface escapes his master, and two academics are locked in an emotional power struggle. Scott’s eleven stories and one novella contain wildly inventive scenes and distinctive characters, set in an alternate reality that uncannily reflects our own. Darkly comic yet searingly credible, these tales defy conventional genres. Mesmerizing and challenging, they brilliantly play with themes of race, religion, violence, and self-discovery. Be brave, world; go there. -Erica
Bill Bryson has distilled five years of research into one comprehensive, utterly readable field guide to our selves. Bryson examines the human body from head to toe with his signature dry, yet corny, humor. Thorough and fascinating, The Body is full of remarkable facts you'll be itching to share. Did you know your brain is constantly forecasting what the world will look like in a fifth of a second? Or that you are made up of 37.2 trillion cells? If you’ve ever Googled a strange symptom, you’ll find much with which to indulge your curiosity (and possibly your neuroses) in Bryson’s latest work. -Emma
Family, places, smells, and tastes conjure memories and make certain foods comfort foods. Everyone has their own personal story to relate regarding the foods they love best. Natalie Eve Garrett has compiled a delicious array of essays from writers around the world. Among the essays you’ll find Diane Abu-Jaber writing about za'atar, Lev Grossman serving up his divorce-inspired General Tso's Tofu, and Kristen Iskandrian celebrating her Grief Pickles. This book will inspire your own stories of the foods that comfort you, and it may add some new comfort foods to your repertoire. Plus it has recipes! -Greg
A staggering feat of investigative reporting, Fentanyl, Inc. explores the illicit world of Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS) like K2, Spice, Flakka, and fentanyl. For the most part these drugs originated in legitimate laboratory work, but they are easily commandeered by anyone with a penchant for chemistry. Sourcing the basic components isn’t an issue as they are readily available over the internet. And increasing criminalization isn’t addressing the problem. Westhoff explores the bold steps—from safe injection sites to access to opioid replacements—necessary to stem this tragic flood. -Holly
There is the simple way to do things, the Rube Goldberg way, and then the excessively complex and hilarious Randall Munroe way. In Munroe’s latest, How To, he answers all the questions we didn’t know we had in ways that only he could dream up. How do you send a data file using monarch butterflies? How do you build (and maintain) a lava moat to fend off your foes? Munroe supplies all the delightful questions and solutions with an endless amount of levity, droll illustrations, and sound science. After all, in Munroe’s words: “Physics doesn’t care if your question is weird.” -Elaine
Ibram X. Kendi has issued a clarion call for re-conceptualizing how we think about and act upon racism. Drawing on his work as a historian and powerfully honest self-reflection, Kendi shows the urgent need for moving beyond a hollow ethos of “non-racism”—often weaponized by the most virulently racist—to an intentionally non-neutral and actionable antiracist philosophy. To be an antiracist requires work, honesty, and discomfort, and this book provides a stellar framework for navigating the complexities and challenges of undertaking a radical new approach to combating racism. -Jacob
Despite the snappy title, How to Do Nothing isn’t exactly about doing nothing; it’s about how our attention has been co-opted and commodified. It’s a takedown of modern society’s prioritization of productivity, efficiency, and capital. It’s a plea for maintenance and sustainability. It reframed the way I perceive the world and my place in it. Through a series of disparate topics—strikes, bird-watching, ancient philosophy, Twitter—Odell illustrates the power of attention and the necessity of meaningful refusal in a world where “attention may be the last resource we have left to withdraw.” -Emma
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At the core of Leslie Jamison’s stunning essay collection is an idea so crucial to her that she had it tattooed on her arm: “I am human: nothing human is alien to me.” That desire for empathy is what drives Jamison to explore, among other topics: the stories of people who claim to experience memories of past lives, a museum filled with mementos from broken relationships, and her own experiences of love and motherhood. Jamison’s prose is always insightful, and each piece in this collection gets to the heart of what it means to be human. I won’t forget these essays for a long time. -Laura
On Fire argues that we are living in a climate emergency, though many continue to act as if nothing has changed. It makes for both sobering and hopeful reading. We know what we need to do: get off a carbon-based economy, and fast. Klein argues that any action we take must be rapid, holistic, collective, and—most importantly—international; she calls for nothing less than building a brave new world by embracing a Green New Deal. How can we achieve this considering the denial of the problem by formidable forces? There is no other choice. We need grassroots change, and we can't afford to fail. -Greg
This fierce collection of essays by Arab sahafiyat (women reporters) about their experiences reporting on events from home challenges the homogeneity of the dominating media narrative. What these women cope with—constant harassment; the murder of a friend, colleague, or husband; the balance of ambitions and family expectations—is as much a part of the story as their assignments. Compelling and highly informative, Our Women on the Ground not only adds nuance to the global understanding of the Arab world, but also subverts stereotypes of what it means to be a woman and a journalist. -Caroline
In A Pilgrimage to Eternity, Timothy Egan embarks upon a journey along the ancient path of the Via Francigena. Traveling deep into the history of Christianity as well as into the contemporary situation of the Roman Catholic church, he explores the continuing relevance of religion within his own life and the lives of his family and community. This wise, brave, and intensely personal book will provide an opportunity for the conversations that many of us crave. We humans have lost neither our longing for connection nor our engagement with wisdom, but we might question wisdom’s source. -Karen
Nearly fifteen years after the fact, Jeannie Vanasco confronts the former friend who sexually assaulted her at nineteen, intending to ask her assailant what he remembers of the event and how he viewed their friendship. Without losing focus on the issue, this disarming memoir becomes about so much more as Vanasco considers cultural and gender expectations, and even the writing process (digressing into ruminations on this project instead of confronting her own feelings). The reader is left with one thought: if Vanasco can have this difficult conversation, then the rest of us can too. -Holly
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These lucid and astoundingly perceptive essays feel like guiding lights, cutting through modern life's delusions and contradictions but offering no easy conclusions. Tolentino has a knack for articulating the insidious undercurrents of our times—from the internet's cheapening of identity and discourse to the horrifying obfuscation of the millennial "hustle"—while expertly examining her own complicity within these systems. Bracingly honest and written with Tolentino's signature wit and wry humor, Trick Mirror shows one of our sharpest critical minds operating at the height of her powers. -Jacob
As Boyer writes of her own breast cancer, she also breathes life into the words of her ancestors: fellow cancer memoirists Sontag, Lorde, and Acker; voices of ancient mythology and modern empires; the poets, the working class, the exhausted. Though not written for, in the author’s words, the “well and intact,” anyone who has been sick, is sick, will be sick, or knows someone sick can find resonance and liberation within Boyer’s signature poetic form. Reimagined here is a world where feeling trumps profit, the ill are cared for, and public crying exists so we can collectively experience artworks as moving as this one. -Riley
This beautiful book is anchored with rich details, even as the people within struggle to find security. Individual stories (including Nayeri’s own) are told against the backdrop of the collective refugee experience. She describes the terror that prompts exodus, the indignity of receiving begrudging charity, and the agony of the eternal wait in camps. Each refugee’s journey is different, but all have faced appalling injustice and the brutal indifference of bureaucracy. In a time when nationalism has shamefully superseded compassion, The Ungrateful Refugee isn’t just important, it’s necessary. -Lauren
More than a memoir, The Yellow House explores site-specific identity. Broom combines interviews with her mother, New Orleans history, and well-placed photographs with her life’s narrative. The book hinges on the destruction of a yellow house in Katrina, which sets Broom and her siblings adrift as if the water had never drained. By shattering conventional conceptions of memoir, Broom illuminates the ways that black lives are erased and neglected in New Orleans and in the country at large. Poetic, yet direct and with wry humor; I wanted to collect paragraphs of this book and put them in my pockets. -Ellis
A Fortune for Your Disaster will gently put you in your place—well, maybe not so gently, but with a sensitivity that is as authentic as it is unique. In this new collection of poetry and prose Abdurraqib’s language is written bare, sparing no emotion as his words artfully tumble across the page in varied rhythms, sticking each landing with heart-wrenching accuracy. His elegies on love, loss, friendship, kinship, and multitudes of despair soar, each word sticking with you like a drop of sweat that finds its home on the nape of your neck during an unforgettable summer night. -Blair
Bea and Lou have each experienced trauma when they run into each other during a West Texas winter. After finding a mysterious cat in the snow, they embark on a road trip only to find that the area they’re passing through might be more magical than it seems. Walden’s art is remarkably tender, expressing both the pain and the possibility of healing that Bea and Lou experience. This beautiful graphic novel deals with heavy subjects such as sexual assault and death, while also reminding us of the difference one friendship can make in our lives. -Laura
The applications of this fable are many, but its message is clear: the desire for ownership breeds self-destruction. Written simply and illustrated with softly striking prints, The Fate of Fausto tells the story of a man who believes he owns the world around him. Lauding love, gratitude, and understanding, this book is simultaneously devastating and hopeful. Jeffers exposes the ridiculousness of entitled rage and exalts the abilities to know one’s worth and see through lies. We all need this bedtime story. -Ellis
When a ferocious creature named Pet arrives asking Jam to help him hunt a monster, there is just one problem: no monsters are left in the city of Lucille. This YA fantasy novel revels in moral messiness and reads like a handbook for confronting the evil in those we love. Sound dark? It is. But Emezi allows Jam, a black trans girl who prefers using sign language, to focus on fighting a monster instead of a society that doesn’t understand her. Pet is perfect for anyone who is fed up and ready for change. -Ellis
It’s here! The book you have been waiting for and you didn’t even know it. On the eve of her thirteenth birthday, Fred finds herself in another realm searching for her mother. She’s befriended by an elephant named Downer and a mongoose named Gogo, who are also on a mission: they seek the ruler of the realm, the Rat Queen (who has some issues of her own). Galchen’s book is so clever and witty—something along the lines of Alice-the-Wizard-Through-the-Looking-Glass-of-Oz—and so delightfully told that it just begs to be read aloud! -Holly
Designed to evoke the style of silent film, Jessie Sima's newest picture book re-imagines a classic story: the adventures of a boy and his dog. The two friends journey from nap-time to playtime, from vet visits to birthday parties. Sima's sharp, playful illustrations provide such thorough narration, it took me six pages to notice the total absence of words. Spencer's New Pet is a little surreal, a lot suspenseful, and features one heck of a twist ending. -Shawn
Faizah is excited on her first day of school—her sister Asiya is wearing a beautiful blue hijab for the first time! But as this book compassionately illustrates, showing who you are is not always easy. Faizah and Asiya must learn to be united and strong in the face of confusing and hurtful words from their classmates, and to celebrate and take pride in who they are. I can’t wait to read this lyrical and beautifully illustrated book at story time. -Jacob