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Books in the Bag

Books in the Bag

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

Narcissistic, hilariously self-deluded, and divorced from the real world as most of us know it, hedge-fund manager Barry Cohen oversees $2.4 billion in assets. Deeply stressed by an SEC investigation and by his three-year-old son’s diagnosis of autism, he flees New York on a Greyhound bus in search of a simpler, more romantic life with his old college sweetheart. Meanwhile, his super-smart wife, Seema — a driven first-generation American who craved the picture-perfect life that comes with wealth — has her own demons to face. How these two flawed characters navigate the Shteyngartian chaos of their own making is at the heart of this piercing exploration of the 0.1 Percent, a poignant tale of familial longing and an unsentimental ode to what really makes America great.

The Incindiaries by R.O. Kwon

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet in their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is drawn into a secretive cult founded by a charismatic former student with an enigmatic past. When the group commits a violent act in the name of faith, Will finds himself struggling to confront a new version of the fanaticism he’s worked so hard to escape. Haunting and intense, The Incendiaries is a fractured love story that explores what can befall those who lose what they love most.

She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore

Wayétu Moore’s powerful debut novel, She Would Be King, reimagines the dramatic story of Liberia’s early years through three unforgettable characters who share an uncommon bond. Gbessa, exiled from the West African village of Lai, is starved, bitten by a viper, and left for dead, but still she survives. June Dey, raised on a plantation in Virginia, hides his unusual strength until a confrontation with the overseer forces him to flee. Norman Aragon, the child of a white British colonizer and a Maroon slave from Jamaica, can fade from sight when the earth calls him. When the three meet in the settlement of Monrovia, their gifts help them salvage the tense relationship between the African American settlers and the indigenous tribes, as a new nation forms around them.

Moore’s intermingling of history and magical realism finds voice not just in these three characters but also in the fleeting spirit of the wind, who embodies an ancient wisdom. “If she was not a woman,” the wind says of Gbessa, “she would be king.” In this vibrant story of the African diaspora, Moore, a talented storyteller and a daring writer, illuminates with radiant and exacting prose the tumultuous roots of a country inextricably bound to the United States. She Would Be King is a novel of profound depth set against a vast canvas and a transcendent debut from a major new author.

Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Seven-year-old Chula and her older sister Cassandra enjoy carefree lives thanks to their gated community in Bogotá, but the threat of kidnappings, car bombs, and assassinations hover just outside the neighborhood walls, where the godlike drug lord Pablo Escobar continues to elude authorities and capture the attention of the nation.

When their mother hires Petrona, a live-in-maid from the city’s guerrilla-occupied slum, Chula makes it her mission to understand Petrona’s mysterious ways. But Petrona’s unusual behavior belies more than shyness. She is a young woman crumbling under the burden of providing for her family as the rip tide of first love pulls her in the opposite direction. As both girls’ families scramble to maintain stability amidst the rapidly escalating conflict, Petrona and Chula find themselves entangled in a web of secrecy that will force them both to choose between sacrifice and betrayal. 

Inspired by the author’s own life, and told through the alternating perspectives of the willful Chula and the achingly hopeful Petrona, Fruit of the Drunken Tree contrasts two very different, but inextricable coming-of-age stories. In lush prose, Rojas Contreras sheds light on the impossible choices women are often forced to make in the face of violence and the unexpected connections that can blossom out of desperation.

The Last Cruise by Kate Christensen

From the acclaimed PEN-Faulkner Award-winning author of The Great Man comes a riveting high-seas adventure that combines Christensen’s signature wit, irony, and humanity to create a striking and unforgettable vision of our times…

The 1950s vintage ocean liner Queen Isabella is making her final voyage before heading to the scrapyard. For the guests on board, among them Christine Thorne, a former journalist turned Maine farmer, it’s a chance to experience the bygone mid-20th century era of decadent luxury cruising, complete with fine dining, classic highballs, string quartets, and sophisticated jazz. Smoking is allowed but not cell phones — or children, for that matter. The Isabella sets sail from Long Beach, CA into calm seas on a two-week retro cruise to Hawaii and back.

But this is the second decade of an uncertain new millennium, not the sunny, heedless fifties, and certain disquieting signs of strife and malfunction above and below decks intrude on the festivities. Down in the main galley, Mick Szabo, a battle-weary Hungarian executive sous-chef, watches escalating tensions among the crew. Meanwhile, Miriam Koslow, an elderly Israeli violinist with the Sabra Quartet, becomes increasingly aware of the age-related vulnerabilities of the ship herself and the cynical corners cut by the cruise ship company, Cabaret.

When a time of crisis begins, Christine, Mick, and Miriam find themselves facing the unknown together in an unexpected and startling test of their characters.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tätowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners.

Imprisoned for over two and a half years, Lale witnesses horrific atrocities and barbarism — but also incredible acts of bravery and compassion. Risking his own life, he uses his privileged position to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive.

One day in July 1942, Lale, prisoner 32407, comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to have the number 34902 tattooed onto her arm. Her name is Gita, and in that first encounter, Lale vows to somehow survive the camp and marry her.

A vivid, harrowing, and ultimately hopeful re-creation of Lale Sokolov’s experiences as the man who tattooed the arms of thousands of prisoners with what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is also a testament to the endurance of love and humanity under the darkest possible conditions.

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The Verdun Affair by Nick Dybek

A sweeping, romantic, and profoundly moving novel, set in Europe in the aftermath of World War I and Los Angeles in the 1950s, about a lonely young man, a beautiful widow, and the amnesiac soldier whose puzzling case binds them together even as it tears them apart.

In 1921, two young Americans meet in Verdun, the city in France where one of the most devastating battles of the war was waged. Tom is an orphan from Chicago, a former ambulance driver now gathering bones from the battlefield; Sarah is an expatriate from Boston searching for the husband who wandered off from his division and hasn’t been seen since. Quickly, the two fall into a complicated affair against the ghostly backdrop of the ruined city. Months later, Sarah and Tom meet again at the psychiatric ward of an Italian hospital, drawn there by the appearance of a mysterious patient the doctors call Douglas Fairbanks (after the silent film actor) — a shell-shocked soldier with no memory of who he is. At the hospital, Tom and Sarah are joined by Paul, an Austrian journalist with his own interest in the amnesiac.

Each is keeping a secret; each has been shaken by the horrors of war. Decades later, Tom, now a successful screenwriter, encounters Paul by chance in LA, still grappling with the questions raised by this gorgeous and incisive novel: How to begin again after unfathomable trauma? How to love after so much loss? And who, in the end, was Douglas Fairbanks?

From the bone-strewn fields of Verdun to the bombed-out cafés of Paris, from the riot-torn streets of Bologna to the riotous parties of 1950s Hollywood, The Verdun Affair is a riveting tale of romance, grief, and the far-reaching consequences of a single lie.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Who says you can’t run away from your problems? You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can’t say yes — it would be too awkward–and you can’t say no — it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world.

QUESTION: How do you arrange to skip town?

ANSWER: You accept them all.

What would possibly go wrong? Arthur Less will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Saharan sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer-in-residence at a Christian Retreat Center in Southern India, and encounter, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on Earth he wants to face. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty. Through it all, there is his first love. And there is his last.

Because, despite all these mishaps, missteps, misunderstandings and mistakes, Less is, above all, a love story.

A scintillating satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time and the human heart, a bittersweet romance of chances lost, by an author The New York Times has hailed as “inspired, lyrical,” “elegiac,” “ingenious,” as well as “too sappy by half,” Less shows a writer at the peak of his talents raising the curtain on our shared human comedy.

There There by Tommy Orange

There There is a relentlessly paced multigenerational story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. It tells the story of twelve characters, each of whom have private reasons for traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and has come to the powwow to dance in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and unspeakable loss.

Here is a voice we have never heard — a voice full of poetry and rage, exploding onto the page with stunning urgency and force. Tommy Orange writes of the plight of the urban Native American, the Native American in the city, in a stunning novel that grapples with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and profound spirituality, and with a plague of addiction, abuse, and suicide. An unforgettable debut, destined to become required reading in schools and universities across the country.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.

This stirring love story is a profoundly insightful look into the hearts and minds of three people who are at once bound and separated by forces beyond their control. An American Marriage is a masterpiece of storytelling, an intimate look deep into the souls of people who must reckon with the past while moving forward — with hope and pain — into the future.

Florida by Lauren Groff

More than a decade ago, Groff moved to her adopted home state of Florida. The stories in this collection span characters, towns, decades, even centuries, but Florida — its landscape, climate, history, and state of mind — becomes its gravitational center. Storms, snakes, and sinkholes lurk at the edge of everyday life, but the greater threats and mysteries are of a human, emotional, and psychological nature. 

Groff’s evocative storytelling and knife-sharp intelligence first transport the reader, then jolt us alert with a crackle of wit, a wave of sadness, a flash of cruelty, as she writes about loneliness, rage, family, and the passage of time. With shocking accuracy and effect, Groff pinpoints the moments and decisions and connections behind human pleasure and pain, hope and despair, love and fury — the moments that make us alive. Vigorous, startling, precise, and moving, Florida is a magnificent achievement.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

From twice National Book Award–nominated Rachel Kushner, whose Flamethrowers was called “the best, most brazen, most interesting book of the year” (Kathryn Schulz, New York magazine), comes a spectacularly compelling, heart-stopping novel about a life gone off the rails in contemporary America.

It’s 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision.

Stunning and unsentimental, The Mars Room demonstrates new levels of mastery and depth in Kushner’s work. It is audacious and tragic, propulsive and yet beautifully refined. As James Wood said in The New Yorker, her fiction “succeeds because it is so full of vibrantly different stories and histories, all of them particular, all of them brilliantly alive.”

Circe by Madeline Miller

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child — not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power — the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.

But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

With unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language and page-turning suspense, Circe is a triumph of storytelling, an intoxicating epic of family rivalry, palace intrigue, love and loss, as well as a celebration of indomitable female strength in a man’s world.

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

The bestselling author of The Paris Wife returns to the subject of Ernest Hemingway in a novel about his passionate, stormy marriage to Martha Gellhorn — a fiercely independent, ambitious young woman who would become one of the greatest war correspondents of the twentieth century.

In 1937, twenty-eight-year-old Martha Gellhorn travels alone to Madrid to report on the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War and becomes drawn to the stories of ordinary people caught in the devastating conflict. It’s the adventure she’s been looking for and her chance to prove herself a worthy journalist in a field dominated by men. But she also finds herself unexpectedly — and uncontrollably—falling in love with Hemingway, a man on his way to becoming a legend.

In the shadow of the impending Second World War, and set against the turbulent backdrops of Madrid and Cuba, Martha and Ernest’s relationship and their professional careers ignite. But when Ernest publishes the biggest literary success of his career, For Whom the Bell Tolls, they are no longer equals, and Martha must make a choice: surrender to the confining demands of being a famous man’s wife or risk losing Ernest by forging a path as her own woman and writer. It is a dilemma that could force her to break his heart, and hers.

Heralded by Ann Patchett as “the new star of historical fiction,” Paula McLain brings Gellhorn’s story richly to life and captures her as a heroine for the ages: a woman who will risk absolutely everything to find her own voice.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

In a narrative as beguiling and mysterious as memory itself — shadowed and luminous at once — we read the story of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel, and his older sister, Rachel. In 1945, just after World War II, they stay behind in London when their parents move to Singapore, leaving them in the care of a mysterious figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and they grow both more convinced and less concerned as they come to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women joined by a shared history of unspecified service during the war, all of whom seem, in some way, determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? And what does it mean when the siblings’ mother returns after months of silence without their father, explaining nothing, excusing nothing? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all that he didn’t know and understand in that time, and it is this journey — through facts, recollection, and imagination — that he narrates in this masterwork from one of the great writers of our time.

Memento Park by Mark Sarvas

A son learns more about his father than he ever could have imagined when a mysterious piece of art is unexpectedly restored to him…

After receiving an unexpected call from the Australian consulate, Matt Santos becomes aware of a painting that he believes was looted from his family in Hungary during the Second World War. To recover the painting, he must repair his strained relationship with his harshly judgmental father, uncover his family history, and restore his connection to his own Judaism. Along the way to illuminating the mysteries of his past, Matt is torn between his doting girlfriend, Tracy, and his alluring attorney, Rachel, with whom he travels to Budapest to unearth the truth about the painting and, in turn, his family.

As his journey progresses, Matt’s revelations are accompanied by equally consuming and imaginative meditations on the painting and the painter at the center of his personal drama, Budapest Street Scene by Ervin Kálmán. By the time Memento Park reaches its conclusion, Matt’s narrative is as much about family history and father-son dynamics as it is about the nature of art itself, and the infinite ways we come to understand ourselves through it.

Of all the questions asked by Mark Sarvas’s Memento Park ― about family and identity, about art and history ― a central, unanswerable predicament lingers: How do we move forward when the past looms unreasonably large?

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

In this gorgeous, page-turning saga, four generations of a poor Korean immigrant family fight to control their destiny in 20th-century Japan, exiled from a home they never knew.

“There could only be a few winners, and a lot of losers. And yet we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones.”

In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant–and that her lover is married–she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.

Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From bustling street markets to the halls of Japan’s finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee’s complex and passionate characters–strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis–survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history.

Improvement by Joan Silber

One of our most gifted writers of fiction returns with a bold and piercing novel about a young single mother living in New York, her eccentric aunt, and the decisions they make that have unexpected implications for the world around them.

Reyna knows her relationship with Boyd isn’t perfect, yet as she visits him throughout his three-month stint at Rikers Island, their bond grows tighter. Kiki, now settled in the East Village after a journey that took her to Turkey and around the world, admires her niece’s spirit but worries that she always picks the wrong man. Little does she know that the otherwise honorable Boyd is pulling Reyna into a cigarette smuggling scheme, across state lines, where he could risk violating probation. When Reyna ultimately decides to remove herself for the sake of her four-year-old child, her small act of resistance sets into motion a tapestry of events that affect the lives of loved ones and strangers around them.

A novel that examines conviction, connection, and the possibility of generosity in the face of loss, Improvement is as intricately woven together as Kiki’s beloved Turkish rugs, as colorful as the tattoos decorating Reyna’s body, with narrative twists and turns as surprising and unexpected as the lives all around us. The Boston Globe says of Joan Silber: “No other writer can make a few small decisions ripple across the globe, and across time, with more subtlety and power.” Improvement is Silber’s most shining achievement yet.

The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott

A magnificent new novel from one of America’s finest writers ― a powerfully affecting story spanning the twentieth century of a widow and her daughter and the nuns who serve their Irish-American community in Brooklyn.

On a dim winter afternoon, a young Irish immigrant opens the gas taps in his Brooklyn tenement. He is determined to prove ― to the subway bosses who have recently fired him, to his badgering, pregnant wife ― “that the hours of his life belong to himself alone.” In the aftermath of the fire that follows, Sister St. Savior, an aging nun appears, unbidden, to direct the way forward for his widow and his unborn child.

We begin deep inside Catholic Brooklyn, in the early part of the twentieth century. Decorum, superstition, and shame collude to erase the man’s brief existence. Yet his suicide, although never spoken of, reverberates through many lives and over the decades testing the limits and the demands of love and sacrifice, of forgiveness and forgetfulness, even through multiple generations.

The characters we meet, from Sally, the unborn baby at the beginning of the novel, who becomes the center of the story to the nuns whose personalities we come to know and love to the neighborhood families with whose lives they are entwined, are all rendered with extraordinary sympathy and McDermott’s trademark lucidity and intelligence. Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour is a crowning achievement by one of the premiere writers at work in America today.

The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea

“All we do, mija, is love. Love is the answer. Nothing stops it. Not borders. Not death.”

In his final days, beloved and ailing patriarch Miguel Angel de La Cruz, affectionately called Big Angel, has summoned his entire clan for one last legendary birthday party. But as the party approaches, his mother, nearly one hundred, dies herself, leading to a farewell doubleheader in a single weekend. Among the guests is Big Angel’s half brother, known as Little Angel, who must reckon with the truth that although he shares a father with his siblings, he has not, as a half gringo, shared a life.

Across two bittersweet days in their San Diego neighborhood, the revelers mingle among the palm trees and cacti, celebrating the lives of Big Angel and his mother, and recounting the many inspiring tales that have passed into family lore, the acts both ordinary and heroic that brought these citizens to a fraught and sublime country and allowed them to flourish in the land they have come to call home.

The story of the de La Cruzes is the quintessential American story. This indelible portrait of a complex family reminds us of what it means to be the first generation and to live two lives across one border. It takes us into a world we have not known, while reflecting back the hopes and dreams of our own families. Teeming with brilliance and humor, authentic at every turn, The House of Broken Angels is Luis Alberto Urrea at his best, and cements his reputation as a storyteller of the first rank.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

The suspenseful and heartbreaking story of an immigrant family driven to pit love against loyalty, with devastating consequences.

Isma is free. After years of watching out for her younger siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she’s accepted an invitation from a mentor in America that allows her to resume a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream, to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew. When he resurfaces half a globe away, Isma’s worst fears are confirmed.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Son of a powerful political figure, he has his own birthright to live up to—or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Suddenly, two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined, in this searing novel that asks: What sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

Two Chinese-American sisters — Miranda, the older, responsible one, always her younger sister’s protector; Lucia, the headstrong, unpredictable one, whose impulses are huge and, often, life changing. When Lucia starts hearing voices, it is Miranda who must find a way to reach her sister. Lucia impetuously plows ahead, but the bitter constant is that she is, in fact, mentally ill. Lucia lives life on a grand scale, until, inevitably, she crashes to earth.

Miranda leaves her own self-contained life in Switzerland to rescue her sister again — but only Lucia can decide whether she wants to be saved. The bonds of sisterly devotion stretch across oceans — but what does it take to break them?

Everything Here Is Beautiful is, at its heart, an immigrant story, and a young woman’s quest to find fulfillment and a life unconstrained by her illness. But it’s also an unforgettable, gut-wrenching story of the sacrifices we make to truly love someone — and when loyalty to one’s self must prevail over all.

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