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Books in the Bag

Books in the Bag

Long Island by Colm Tóibín

Eilis Lacey is Irish, married to Tony Fiorello, a plumber and one of four Italian American brothers, all of whom live in neighboring houses on a cul-de-sac in Lindenhurst, Long Island, with their wives and children and Tony’s parents, a huge extended family that lives and works, eats and plays together. It is the spring of 1976 and Eilis, now in her forties with two teenage children, has no one to rely on in this still-new country. Though her ties to Ireland remain stronger than those that hold her to her new land and home, she has not returned in decades.

One day, when Tony is at his job and Eilis is in her home office doing her accounting, an Irishman comes to the door asking for her by name. He tells her that his wife is pregnant with Tony’s child and that when the baby is born, he will not raise it but instead deposit it on Eilis’s doorstep. It is what Eilis does — and what she refuses to do — in response to this stunning news that makes Tóibín’s novel so riveting.

Long Island is about longings unfulfilled, even unrecognized. The silences in Eilis’ life are thunderous and dangerous, and there’s no one more deft than Tóibín at giving them language. This is a gorgeous story of a woman alone in a marriage and the deepest bonds she rekindles on her return to the place and people she left behind, to ways of living and loving she thought she’d lost.

Real Americans by Rachel Khong

Real Americans begins on the precipice of Y2K in New York City, when twenty-two-year-old Lily Chen, an unpaid intern at a slick media company, meets Matthew. Matthew is everything Lily is not: easygoing and effortlessly attractive, a native East Coaster, and, most notably, heir to a vast pharmaceutical empire. Lily couldn’t be more different: flat-broke, raised in Tampa, the only child of scientists who fled Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Despite all this, Lily and Matthew fall in love.

In 2021, fifteen-year-old Nick Chen has never felt like he belonged on the isolated Washington island where he lives with his single mother, Lily. He can’t shake the sense she’s hiding something. When Nick sets out to find his biological father, the journey threatens to raise more questions than it provides answers.

In immersive, moving prose, Rachel Khong weaves a profound tale of class and striving, race and visibility, and family and inheritance—a story of trust, forgiveness, and finally coming home.

Exuberant and explosive, Real Americans is a social novel par excellence that asks: Are we destined, or made? And if we are made, who gets to do the making? Can our genetic past be overcome?

James by Percival Everett

When the enslaved Jim overhears that he is about to be sold to a man in New Orleans, separated from his wife and daughter forever, he decides to hide on nearby Jackson Island until he can formulate a plan. Meanwhile, Huck Finn has faked his own death to escape his violent father, recently returned to town. As all readers of American literature know, thus begins the dangerous and transcendent journey by raft down the Mississippi River toward the elusive and too-often-unreliable promise of the Free States and beyond.

While many narrative set pieces of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remain in place (floods and storms, stumbling across both unexpected death and unexpected treasure in the myriad stopping points along the river’s banks, encountering the scam artists posing as the Duke and Dauphin…), Jim’s agency, intelligence and compassion are shown in a radically new light.

Brimming with the electrifying humor and lacerating observations that have made Everett a “literary icon” (Oprah Daily), and one of the most decorated writers of our lifetime, James is destined to be a major publishing event and a cornerstone of twenty-first century American literature.

Anita De Monte Laughs Last by Xochitl Gonzalez

Who gets to leave a legacy?

1985. Anita de Monte, a rising star in the art world, is found dead in New York City; her tragic death is the talk of the town. Until it isn’t. By 1998 Anita’s name has been all but forgotten ― certainly by the time Raquel, a third-year art history student is preparing her final thesis. On College Hill, surrounded by progeny of film producers, C-Suite executives, and international art-dealers, most of whom float through life knowing that their futures are secured, Raquel feels herself an outsider. Students of color, like Raquel, are the minority there, and the pressure to work twice as hard for the same opportunities is no secret.

But when Raquel becomes romantically involved with a well-connected older art student, she finds herself unexpectedly rising up the social ranks. As she attempts to straddle both worlds, she stumbles upon Anita’s story, raising questions about the dynamics of her own relationship, which eerily mirrors that of the forgotten artist.

Moving back and forth through time and told from the perspectives of both women, Anita de Monte Laughs Last is a propulsive, witty examination of power, love, and art, daring to ask who gets to be remembered and who is left behind in the rarefied world of the elite.

The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard

Sixteen-year-old Odile is an awkward, quiet girl vying for a coveted seat on the Conseil. If she earns the position, she’ll decide who may cross her town’s heavily guarded borders. On the other side, it’s the same valley, the same town. Except to the east, the town is twenty years ahead in time. To the west, it’s twenty years behind. The towns repeat in an endless sequence across the wilderness.

When Odile recognizes two visitors she wasn’t supposed to see, she realizes that the parents of her friend Edme have been escorted across the border from the future, on a mourning tour, to view their son while he’s still alive in Odile’s present.

Edme—who is brilliant, funny, and the only person to truly see Odile—is about to die. Sworn to secrecy in order to preserve the timeline, Odile now becomes the Conseil’s top candidate. Yet she finds herself drawing closer to the doomed boy, imperiling her entire future.

A breathlessly moving “unique take on the intersection of fate and free will” (Nikki Erlick, author of The Measure), The Other Valley is “a stellar debut, full of heartbreak and hope wrapped up in gorgeous prose” (Christina Dalcher, author of Vox).

Leaving by Roxana Robinson

“I never thought I’d see you here,” Sarah says. Then she adds, “But I never thought I’d see you anywhere.”

Sarah and Warren’s college love story ended in a single moment. Decades later, when a chance meeting brings them together, a passion ignites―threatening the foundations of the lives they’ve built apart. Since they parted in college, each has married, raised a family, and made a career. When they meet again, Sarah is divorced and living outside New York, while Warren is still married and living in Boston.

Seeing Warren sparks an awakening in Sarah, who feels emotionally alive for the first time in decades. Still, she hesitates to reclaim a chance at love after her painful divorce and years of framing her life around her children and her work. Warren has no such reservations: he wants to leave his marriage but can’t predict how his wife and daughter will react. As their affair intensifies, Sarah and Warren must confront the moral responsibilities of their love for their families and each other.

Leaving charts a passage through loyalty and desire as it builds to a shattering conclusion. In her boldest and most powerful work to date, Roxana Robinson demonstrates her “trademark gifts as an intelligent, sensitive analyst of family life” (Wendy Smith, Chicago Tribune) in an engrossing exploration of the vows we make to one another, the tensile relationships between parents and their children, and what we owe to others and ourselves.

Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar

Cyrus Shams is a young man grappling with an inheritance of violence and loss: his mother’s plane was shot down over the skies of the Persian Gulf in a senseless accident; and his father’s life in America was circumscribed by his work killing chickens at a factory farm in the Midwest. Cyrus is a drunk, an addict, and a poet, whose obsession with martyrs leads him to examine the mysteries of his past — toward an uncle who rode through Iranian battlefields dressed as the angel of death to inspire and comfort the dying, and toward his mother, through a painting discovered in a Brooklyn art gallery that suggests she may not have been who or what she seemed.

Kaveh Akbar’s Martyr! is a paean to how we spend our lives seeking meaning — in faith, art, ourselves, others.

All the Little Bird-Hearts by Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow

Sunday lives with her sixteen year old daughter Dolly, the same house she has lived in all her life. She does things differently from other people, but mostly it works. On her “quiet days” she must eat only white foods. For social situations, she has her etiquette hand book, and for solace her beloved treasury of Sicilian folklore. But the one thing very much out of her control is Dolly – beautiful, headstrong Dolly who is on the cusp of leaving home.

Into this carefully ordered life step Vita and Rollo, a glamorous London couple who move in next door, disarm Sunday with their wit and charm, and proceed to deliciously break just about every rule in her etiquette manual. Soon the two families are in and out of each others houses, and Sunday feels loved and accepted like never before. But beneath Vita and Rollo’s charm and wealth there is something else, something darker. And Sunday has something that Vita has always wanted for herself, a beautiful, clever daughter of her own.

North Woods by Daniel Mason

When two young lovers abscond from a Puritan colony, little do they know that their humble cabin in the woods will become the home of an extraordinary succession of human and nonhuman characters alike. An English soldier, destined for glory, abandons the battlefields of the New World to devote himself to growing apples. A pair of spinster twins navigate war and famine, envy and desire. A crime reporter unearths an ancient mass grave—only to discover that the earth refuse to give up their secrets. A lovelorn painter, a sinister con man, a stalking panther, a lusty beetle: As the inhabitants confront the wonder and mystery around them, they begin to realize that the dark, raucous, beautiful past is very much alive.

This magisterial and highly inventive novel from Pulitzer Prize finalist Daniel Mason brims with love and madness, humor and hope. Following the cycles of history, nature, and even language, North Woods shows the myriad, magical ways in which we’re connected to our environment, to history, and to one another. It is not just an unforgettable novel about secrets and destinies, but a way of looking at the world that asks the timeless question: How do we live on, even after we’re gone?

Absolution by Alice McDermott

You have no idea what it was like. For us. The women, I mean. The wives.

American women ― American wives ― have been mostly minor characters in the literature of the Vietnam War, but in Absolution they take center stage. Tricia is a shy newlywed, married to a rising attorney on loan to navy intelligence. Charlene is a practiced corporate spouse and mother of three, a beauty and a bully. In Saigon in 1963, the two women form a wary alliance as they balance the era’s mandate to be “helpmeets” to their ambitious husbands with their own, inchoate impulse to “do good” for the people of Vietnam.

Sixty years later, Charlene’s daughter, spurred by an encounter with an aging Vietnam vet, reaches out to Tricia. Together, they look back at their time in Saigon, taking wry account of that pivotal year and of Charlene’s altruistic machinations, and discovering as they do how their own lives as women on the periphery ― of politics, of history, of war, of their husbands’ convictions ― have been shaped and burdened by the same sort of unintended consequences that followed America’s tragic interference in Southeast Asia.

A virtuosic new novel from Alice McDermott, one of our most observant, most affecting writers ― about folly and grace, obligation, sacrifice, and, finally, the quest for absolution in a broken world.

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride

In 1972, when workers in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, were digging the foundations for a new development, the last thing they expected to find was a skeleton at the bottom of a well. Who the skeleton was and how it got there were two of the long-held secrets kept by the residents of Chicken Hill, the dilapidated neighborhood where immigrant Jews and African Americans lived side by side and shared ambitions and sorrows. Chicken Hill was where Moshe and Chona Ludlow lived when Moshe integrated his theater and where Chona ran the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store. When the state came looking for a deaf boy to institutionalize him, it was Chona and Nate Timblin, the Black janitor at Moshe’s theater and the unofficial leader of the Black community on Chicken Hill, who worked together to keep the boy safe.

As these characters’ stories overlap and deepen, it becomes clear how much the people who live on the margins of white, Christian America struggle and what they must do to survive. When the truth is finally revealed about what happened on Chicken Hill and the part the town’s white establishment played in it, McBride shows us that even in dark times, it is love and community — heaven and earth — that sustain us.

Bringing his masterly storytelling skills and his deep faith in humanity to The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, James McBride has written a novel as compassionate as Deacon King Kong and as inventive as The Good Lord Bird.

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