What a magnificent novel. The Guest Lecture is succinct in its execution, wise and generous in its intellectual offerings, creative and a little experimental but never belligerent. If you're ever to summon an English economist into the rooms of your conscience, let it be John Maynard Keynes, and may your guide be as good as Abby, Martin Riker's heroic/anxious protagonist. High entertainment and a hell of a lot of fun. I'm going to read it again before too long.
I've read everything this guy has ever published, and after 25 years since his first (and best) collection, Civilwarland in Bad Decline, he's still coaxing the dark out of us and showing that people are neither bad nor good: they're both. This collection contains classic George Saunders—the story "Ghoul" is set in a hell-themed amusement park—as well as new, subversive modes of storytelling. If you haven't read him, literally anywhere, right now, is a great place to start.
Timefulness includes a feeling for distances and proximities in the geography of deep time. Focusing simply on the age of the Earth is like describing a symphony in terms of its total measure count. Without time, a symphony is a heap of sounds; the duration of notes and re-occurrence of themes gives it shape. Similarly, the grandeur of Earth’s story lies in the gradually unfolding, interwoven, rhythms of its many movements, with short motifs scampering over tones that resonate across the entire span of the planet’s history.' (Marcia Bjornerud)
This is the book that solidified my obsessive interest in geology. Marcia Bjornerud's book is a gift to the amateur, a blessing for anyone in the philosophical and scientific study of our 4.6 billion year old planet. Existential, accessible, and framed within deep time and climate change, this book changed my life and opened my days to a new preoccupation (rocks).
Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson calls his time in the mountains 'hours stolen from the gods.' For me, this book was a touchstone for what I suspect will be a lifetime's interest in geology. Robinson turns out to be an enthusiastic amateur-expert on psychogeology, alpenglow, and traversing tallus and scree. A gold mine for any hiker, mountaineer, or reader of John Muir or Gary Snyder—and if you're at the intersection of any of those things, this book is a no-brainer. Buy in hardcover. Appreciate the stunning color photographs.
This deceptive, beautiful tome is a captivating Geology 101 course disguised as a coffee table decoration. Stalwart PNW highlights include: the Olympic Peninsula, the Columbia River Gorge, Mt. Saint Helens, Crater Lake, and Hells Canyon (where my grandmother famously developed pancreatitis in the middle of a rafting trip).
Some call Osamu Dazai the Japanese Thomas Bernhard—a masterful writer of estranged narrators, the relentlessly dour, and timeless cruelties. Originally published in 1948, and translated into English by Donald Keene in 1958, this extraordinary book recently found new life on TikTok, where it's introduced thousands of young readers to literature in translation.
A novel I return to when I can't read anything else. This unabashedly funny debut chronicles the post-academic life of writer Peter Cunningham. Martin’s characters are all sharp and easy to love, despite their errors. They drink too much, lay out their ambitions, overanalyze, pursue destructive relationships, and mine the dreadful ends of experience for something to poke and laugh about. There's even a love triangle. A brilliant book that names the unnameable gloom of being unsure and writing in the 21st century.
Nestled within the nucleus of motherhood literature comes Linea Nigra, written in aphorism and anecdote that intersect over and over again in beautiful orbits. Barrera writes about childbirth, breastfeeding, and care through her mother’s artwork and her grandmother’s experience as a doula, as well as the author’s own extensive reading notes and frustrations with healthcare. Barrera’s seriousness and intelligence is punctuated by expressions of delight in parenthood.
I’ll be a mess if I can find a better novel this year than Gospodinov’s Time Shelter. Gaustine, a geriatric ward clinician, opens a clinic for Alzheimer’s patients that reproduces decades of the past in perfect detail. The treatment is wildly effective, and within the comfort of past eras, patients inhabit their former selves. Angela Rodel somehow manages an encyclopedia’s worth of obscure cultural references from across the globe, rending them with clarity and beauty. Gospodinov is a keen observer of both the melancholy of time’s passing and the slippery joy of nostalgia.
Something about the deadpan confidence of Haber's work has the power to convince me that imaginary paintings are real, conjured writers have walked the Earth, and the sky is purple and filled with green clouds. We're all gullible neophytes before Mark Haber's breathless novels. Saint Sebastian's Abyss is one of the first of its kind by an American writer, a sleek novel about Renaissance art, rivalry between friends and devotees, and the meaning of the obsessions that orbit our careers. There's not a single sentence in this book that isn't ecstatic.
A bookseller at the famed Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Mark Haber has written an unbelievably funny and dour novel about the nature of melancholy, set in a South American jungle. I still remember a particular scene involving rabid hounds roaming Tolstoy's estate, which was so detailed and so good I thought it was somehow true, but it was not. This is the joy of reading Mark Haber—falling into fictions face first.
Zambra's novels can be cheeky and experimental, but there's always substance. Chilean Poet is an exquisite book about bad juvenilia (in the funniest ways), unconventional fatherhood, and how the most obscure realms of literature and bookstores can connect generations. His characters can be jerks who love books, but boy, aren't we all?
The Chilean writer, painter, art critic, and avant-garde surrealist Juan Emar has never been translated into English… but if Megan McDowell’s brilliant translation is any indication, we’ll all be Emar fanatics soon. (Many of your favorite Chilean writers probably grew up reading him.) In Yesterday’s most notable scene, an ostrich defecates a lion. I couldn’t tell you what else it’s about, but I found it all wonderful.
This novel, like a certain Canadian punk band’s debut studio album, is all killer, no filler. Rejean Ducharme, a virtual unknown in this country, was a reclusive Quebecois author known for his fluvial cynicism. Ducharme's Berenice is an over-intelligent and cantankerous 9-year-old, the sum of her environment and the whole cruel human ecosystem, and yet she delights in the first snow of winter, and experiences 'some kind of miracle' while hunting for bugs. Madeleine Stratford has translated Ducharme in a strange and most meaningful way—with conviction, with clarity, with a bit of finger-pointing in every sentence. A book that will endure, even if I'm the only one who reads it.
Jon Fosse's Septology cycle has been one of my most meaningful encounters of the pandemic. Hypnotic, soothing, intellectually reverent. Damion Searls is the perfect translator for Fosse's unending sentences, that repeat and circle back on themselves with mathematical beauty, creating some of the most significant literature I've read on alcoholism, faith, and artmaking I can remember. Septology could fill a hundred volumes, and I would read forever.
If 2001: A Space Odyssey was also about chilling, unnameable workplace minutiae... well, here you go. In the far future, a spaceship orbits a planet littered with strange objects, and the ship's crew—janitors, captains, all—become obsessed with these mysterious mementos. A story of dread and survival, both existential and physical, to be read in a morning, quaking over your coffee. You won't forget it.
literary fiction, science fiction, literature in translation
I'm hard-pressed to find something similar to Carl de Souza anywhere in American fiction—his haunted stylings, his wanderings, his dense depictions of violence that feel both immediate and unreal.
An outrageous plot too good to be taken anything less than seriously: a listless but talented writer steals the idea for his debut novel from a former acquaintance, and an unbelievable deal is made to cover up the scandal that ensues. A novel about literary success and moral conundrums (and love, and relationships, and author readings at bookstores) as sharp as winter wind in Lipstein's top notch prose. You'll put this book down both shocked and fulfilled.
The Love Parade stands out as a fascinating addition to Pitol's unsolveable mysteries and glassy realism. Complete with a cantankerous bookseller, an array of monologue-sick characters (like Dante's dead), and a futile search for answers (or is it?), George Henson's new translation is sure to delight.
Like the Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić, Saša Stanišić writes about the experience of growing up in a country that no longer exists, the former Yugoslavia. I couldn't name another work of literature that fuses Dungeons & Dragons lore, choose-your-own-adventure antics, multigenerational conflict, biting witticisms against fascists, and a stunning account of what it's like to witness a person you love vanish within the specter of dementia. Stanišić could find no better translator than Damion Searls, whose gifted shaping of Stanišić's prose into English makes Where You Come From one of the best books I've read this year.
Worth every cent. Learn to love your local Farmers Markets (we have quite a few in Seattle, including one right outside our door every Sunday at Lake Forest Park from May through October). Find what's in season, and make some of the best beets of your life. While not a 100% plant-based cookbook, Oregon restaurateur Joshua McFadden will fundamentally change the way you cook with vegetables.
There's no better bible for Gluten-Free baking. Seattle's own Aran Goyoaga is a not-so-hidden treasure for those with Celiac, and her books make a perfect gift for your allergy-conscious baker. This new baking companion to Aran's 2019 cookbook Canelle et Vanille covers breads, classic holiday recipes, pies, unbelievable tarts, and more.
One of my favorite hidden gems. Martin Riker—the co-publisher of Dorothy, A Publishing Project—pens a novel that spans decades of life both remarkable and comically dull. After Samuel Johnson dies, he finds himself in a liminal state, his soul jumping from body to living body in earthbound purgatory, in search of his son and the meaning behind our quiet lives.
Agustín Fernández Mallo's magnum opus is a monstrous book that reaches out and touches everything—love and sentimentalism, war, our pitiful human intelligence, moon landings, physics and dead stars, car chases, Facebook, rooftop tomato gardens—yet is somehow still accessible in Thomas Bunstead's elegant translation. You can't walk away from this novel without feeling brutally changed. There are one-liners that will digest you whole. After 600 pages, you'll realize you've been standing next to a mountain. For readers of W.G. Sebald and Daša Drndić.
It's incredible what the Germans can do—disgust you, isolate you, toss you—the reader—to the curb and expect devotion in return. (Unfortunately, it works.) Wolfgang Hilbig's The Interim is the revered German writer's most complete and erudite of his works translated into English. Isabel Fargo Cole doesn't miss a beat of Hilbig's humor and disorientation. The Interim reads like literature crawling out of the drain; the novel's narrator, known only as C., is both loveable and inescapable in his singular history of two Germany's: East and West. As C. has it: "Literature that refused to serve the purpose of distraction was punished by being passed over on the market. . . the best distraction was what sold the best." The Interim is the opposite of such distraction; it also happens to be a damn good book.
In Harrow, Joy Williams doesn't write precocious child narrators so much as she writes all-seeing child gods. Funny as hell, full of nonsense and uncontrolled wit, this stunning, death-hurtling novel is certainly one of the best Williams has ever produced. It's a pleasure to be alive to see it.
The inaugural publication from Fern Books, AN IDEAL PRESENCE is a book about death, dying, care, and the cold logistics of it all. A work of fiction by an OuLiPian with the fatal energy of Alice Oswald's Memorial, I was as amazed by this polyphonic novel as I was humbled by its reverence for the profession of caregiving in our often unremarkable final hours. An instant favorite.
To the chagrin of plenty, when people ask me about Miriam Toews (and when they don't), I often say her name in the same breath as "greatest novelist writing in English today" and "the best writer on grief and loss living on this continent," superlatives that surely test my credibility and raise eyebrows, but I stand by them. So help me. It's easy for me to articulate what makes Toews so compelling: her acidic humor, her total inability to play by the rules, always one eye on the specter of death. Rivaling some of Toews's best novels (All My Puny Sorrows, Women Talking, A Complicated Kindness, to name a few), FIGHT NIGHT is the most invigorating work of art in Toews's oeuvre thus far. Come for Toews's unparalleled knack for writing sour grandmothers; stay for Swiv, the precocious child narrator who says things like this: "I don't know why saying bowel movement and stool is better than vag and piehole. It doesn't matter what words you use in life, it's not gonna prevent you from suffering."
The Divorce rivals The Literary Conference and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter as my favorite Aira to date. Nutty, full of preposterous coincidence, always veering in impossible directions. We call César Aira a writer of fiction (is he a magical realist? surrealist?) because there's no other name for what he does.
Let me introduce you to Brian Evenson. He can write in nearly every genre imaginable. He's the Rod Serling of books, guiding you through moral tales of ecological horror, the violent history of American religion, the monstrous, self-destructive nature of our species. Booksellers, critics, hard-boiled genre writers, and the snooty upper echelon of literary novelists speak about Brian Evenson in hushed, reverent tones. He never misses.
A Memoir of facism, childhood, and then motherhood in early 20th century Italy, written in a unique, pointillist style made famous (relatively speaking) by the stylings of Annie Ernaux or the fiction of Renata Adler. Jarre's speciality is writing the unspoken peculiarities of childhood. Read the first paragraph and tell me you wouldn't read 200 pages of Jarre's work. An immense story of a life.
Our ill-fated narrator is Aurora Berro, who dies in the novel’s opening pages when a vinyl record, screaming across the sky like a “demented boomerang,” slices her jugular in unspectacular fashion. What ensues is a nightmare of vaudevillian overtones and magnificent solitude (think Carmen Boullosa meets Jon Fosse meets Marx Brothers). Out of the Cage made me feel uneasy in my skin, uneasy about the fact of my birth, and suddenly unsure of how my mother really felt about me.
Arguably the first work of modern fiction in Chinese to feature a transgender protagonist, The Membranes presents a searing future in which the planet's surface is so hot as to be uninhabitable, forcing humanity to 'migrate' to (ie. colonize) the bottom fo the ocean. We’re still a warmongering, profit-starved, app-addled, climate-havocked military state in Chi's vision of the future, but it's not all so bleak. The Membranes is somehow still an illuminating novel about the importance of touch and familial bonds, with a Matrix-worthy plot twist of astonishing intimacy.
Pew, Catherine Lacey's genderless protagonist, arrives in the American South one day, without shelter or memory of whence they came. A strange event called the Forgiveness Festival looms over the novel, a gathering that brings about the book's unnerving but ultimately cathartic climax—like reading Ursula K Le Guin, or Ágota Kristóf, or Jesse Ball. Pew is Catherine Lacey's weirdest, most provocative book to date, the novel that she'll be remembered for for years to come.
You may have no desire to know the intimate backroad histories of old LA, you might not be a film buff, but I'm telling you... you don't have to be much of anything to fall in love with this book. I couldn't stop until I found its author, the inimitable Matthew Specktor, in possession of success or happiness or peace or something that resembles those impossible objects. These aren't just essays about Fitzgerald, Warren Zevon, Thomas McGuane, Renata Adler; this is a book about what it is to be an artist in America. Specktor's story is both erudite and crafty magic.
It's hard to prepare yourself for a book like Seek You. Not quite memoir, not quite essay, and never what you'd expect, Kristen Radtke has somehow captured the essence of loneliness in an era that will surely be defined by it. There are panels of ocean tides and isolated sitcom-watchers that send me deeper into myself every time I see them—I've been those isolated sitcom-watchers; I've felt those ocean tides. Radtke diagnoses our loneliness without pity or preciousness. What else to call this but a masterpiece?
"That is our 'pointed task. Love & die." So says John Berryman, the pre-eminent lovedrunk poet and the central obsession of Andrew Palmer's debut novel, The Bachelor, a book that is, yes, partially about romantic love in the age of reality television. But what if you're not a fame-starved Instagram model, and instead a brooding but friendly millennial type, recently void of artistic ambition? Palmer's brilliant work is full of insight and romantic mistakes, like reading the best of Andrew Martin, Ben Lerner, or Elif Batuman. Palmer extracts the language of love for what it is—its hollowness! its empty repetition! ("I've never felt this way before." "I think I'm falling for you.") It's a difficult thing to watch, as it starts to indict us all.
A truly unique book, perfect in pitch, perfect in form, perfect in many things. The Organs of Sense is like a sour George Saunders novel or an astronomical Bernhard with a degree in the science history, but seriously, only a writer as bizarrely talented as Adam Ehrlich Sachs could have written it.
When Geissler's narrator, a writer and translator, is unable to afford a life on freelance wages, she takes up a seasonal position at an Amazon fulfillment center. As a prose writer, Geissler is like a German Valeria Luiselli or Sheila Heti; like no other book I've read, she makes the humiliations of wage labor unavoidably clear. Read this if you've ever purchased a book from Amazon (or a shower curtain, or anything really). This book is not a journalist's hit piece on the megacorporation—it's a nightmare, an intellectual life subdued, a novel full of nuance and dread worthy of Kafka.
I can't believe how incredible this book is: at once philosophical and present, comic and rapturous. Miriam Toews could have easily unearthed and translated this text from an archeological dig, so closely does it resemble an ancient tragedy. Women Talking is a novel that touches everything and will, God help us, ripple past the bubble of bookworld and into the classroom, your legislative offices, your father's nightstand.
Lewis Hyde imagines a world in which the loss of memory—not published thought, not the Cloud, not ink spilled or the tyranny of documentation—is not only a gift, but a foundation for nations, the self, and creation. Lewis Hyde's goal isn't to comfort, but to create a new mythology of loss, citing Borges, Virgil, Emerson, John Cage, and dozens more, pasting together quotes and anecdotes, aphorism and vignette in what must be Hyde's greatest work, a sublime museum of loss as swift and venerable as the river Lethe.
Selva Almada's novel lasts only a moment but echoes across deserts. She treats the subject of God with an honesty both skeptical and earnest. In this sharp translation by Chris Andrews, Almado is one of those mysterious debuts who has eschewed naivety, achieving perfect mood.
From the legendary Japenese author Osamu Dazai, father of Yuko Tsushima, comes this miserable book, hardly a novel at all, a book about extreme alienation and cruelty that somehow perfectly describes the discomfort and obscurity of coming of age.
Make It Scream, Make It Burn eschews preciousness, dives into the weird and desolate, and brings us some of the finest curiosities in nonfiction today. Leslie Jamison's celebrated return to the essay form is marked by everything we want and more: The unheard dirge of loneliest whale in the world! The devout banality of Second Life citizens! Stepmotherhood and motherhood! True to form, Jamison doesn't stop at essay, criticism, or memoir—we, the readers, get this multi-genre, loose, unknown thing, imperfect in design, just as it should be.
Jesse Ball: a jester of sorts, and his novels are cosmic dramas. Reading The Divers' Game is a lesson in ingenuity, gameplaying, worldbuilding, and moral empathy. No spoilers, but the final pages are a novel in themselves, as a woman writes a letter during her last moments on earth. Some would call this 'classic Jesse Ball,' but I've come to learn there's no such thing.
"If you thought workplace fiction couldn't feel more defeated, you were wrong. The New Me is somehow both hyper-contemporary and universal, representative of the malaise of the millennial condition and modern workplace. It's for smart people! It's for dour people! It's for the young and the bewildered! Halle Butler is nothing less than stunning."
A beautifully disjointed novel that communicates knowledge truer than fact, with a careless, flawed protagonist (often vain, often marred by his own intellect) who survives beyond corporeal form or linear time. I was gobsmacked by Levy’s brilliance and all the dark movement beneath her prose. The Man Who Saw Everything is somehow before our time and after; of the political moment and reaching in all directions.