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Books in the Bag

Books in the Bag

Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

It’s 2017, and Olga and her brother, Pedro “Prieto” Acevedo, are boldfaced names in their hometown of New York. Prieto is a popular congressman representing their gentrifying Latinx neighborhood in Brooklyn, while Olga is the tony wedding planner for Manhattan’s power brokers.

Despite their alluring public lives, behind closed doors things are far less rosy. Sure, Olga can orchestrate the love stories of the 1 percent but she can’t seem to find her own. . . until she meets Matteo, who forces her to confront the effects of long-held family secrets.

Olga and Prieto’s mother, Blanca, a Young Lord turned radical, abandoned her children to advance a militant political cause, leaving them to be raised by their grandmother. Now, with the winds of hurricane season, Blanca has come barreling back into their lives.

Set against the backdrop of New York City in the months surrounding the most devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico’s history, Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming is a story that examines political corruption, familial strife, and the very notion of the American dream ― all while asking what it really means to weather a storm.

Honor by Thrity Umrigar

Indian American journalist Smita has returned to India to cover a story, but reluctantly: long ago she and her family left the country with no intention of ever coming back. As she follows the case of Meena — a Hindu woman attacked by members of her own village and her own family for marrying a Muslim man — Smita comes face to face with a society where tradition carries more weight than one’s own heart, and a story that threatens to unearth the painful secrets of Smita’s own past. While Meena’s fate hangs in the balance, Smita tries in every way she can to right the scales. She also finds herself increasingly drawn to Mohan, an Indian man she meets while on assignment. But the dual love stories of Honor are as different as the cultures of Meena and Smita themselves: Smita realizes she has the freedom to enter into a casual affair, knowing she can decide later how much it means to her.

In this tender and evocative novel about love, hope, familial devotion, betrayal, and sacrifice, Thrity Umrigar shows us two courageous women trying to navigate how to be true to their homelands and themselves at the same time.

White on White by Aysegül Savas

A student moves to the city to research Gothic nudes, renting an apartment from a painter, Agnes, who lives in another town with her husband. One day, Agnes arrives in the city and settles into the upstairs studio.

In their meetings on the stairs, in the studio, at the corner café, the kitchen at dawn, Agnes tells stories of her youth, her family, her marriage, and ideas for her art – which is always just about to be created. As the months pass, it becomes clear that Agnes might not have a place to return to. The student is increasingly aware of Agnes’s disintegration. Her stories are frenetic; her art scattered and unfinished, white paint on a white canvas.

What emerges is the menacing sense that every life is always at the edge of disaster, no matter its seeming stability. Alongside the research into human figures, the student is learning, from a cool distance, about the narrow divide between happiness and resentment, creativity and madness, contentment and chaos.

White on White is a sharp exploration of empathy and cruelty, and the stunning discovery of what it means to be truly vulnerable, and laid bare.

A History of Wild Places by Shea Ernshaw

Travis Wren has an unusual talent for locating missing people. Hired by families as a last resort, he requires only a single object to find the person who has vanished. When he takes on the case of Maggie St. James — a well-known author of dark, macabre children’s books — he’s led to a place many believed to be only a legend.

Called Pastoral, this reclusive community was founded in the 1970s by like-minded people searching for a simpler way of life. By all accounts, the commune shouldn’t exist anymore and soon after Travis stumbles upon it…he disappears. Just like Maggie St. James.

Years later, Theo, a lifelong member of Pastoral, discovers Travis’s abandoned truck beyond the border of the community. No one is allowed in or out, not when there’s a risk of bringing a disease — rot — into Pastoral. Unraveling the mystery of what happened reveals secrets that Theo, his wife, Calla, and her sister, Bee, keep from one another. Secrets that prove their perfect, isolated world isn’t as safe as they believed — and that darkness takes many forms.

Hauntingly beautiful, hypnotic, and bewitching, A History of Wild Places is a story about fairy tales, our fear of the dark, and losing yourself within the wilderness of your mind.

Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart

In the rolling hills of upstate New York, a group of friends and friends-of-friends gathers in a country house to wait out the pandemic. Over the next six months, new friendships and romances will take hold, while old betrayals will emerge, forcing each character to reevaluate whom they love and what matters most. The unlikely cast of characters includes a Russian-born novelist; his Russian-born psychiatrist wife; their precocious child obsessed with K-pop; a struggling Indian American writer; a wildly successful Korean American app developer; a global dandy with three passports; a Southern flamethrower of an essayist; and a movie star, the Actor, whose arrival upsets the equilibrium of this chosen family. Both elegiac and very, very funny, Our Country Friends is the most ambitious book yet by the author of the beloved bestseller Super Sad True Love Story.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, The Sentence, asks what we owe to the living, the dead, to the reader and to the book. A small independent bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted from November 2019 to November 2020 by the store’s most annoying customer. Flora dies on All Souls’ Day, but she simply won’t leave the store. Tookie, who has landed a job selling books after years of incarceration that she survived by reading “with murderous attention,” must solve the mystery of this haunting while at the same time trying to understand all that occurs in Minneapolis during a year of grief, astonishment, isolation, and furious reckoning.

The Sentence begins on All Souls’ Day 2019 and ends on All Souls’ Day 2020. Its mystery and proliferating ghost stories during this one year propel a narrative as rich, emotional, and profound as anything Louise Erdrich has written. .

The Four Humors by Mina Seckin

Twenty-year-old Sibel thought she had concrete plans for the summer. She would care for her grandmother in Istanbul, visit her father’s grave, and study for the MCAT. Instead, she finds herself watching Turkish soap operas and self-diagnosing her own possible chronic illness with the four humors theory of ancient medicine.

Also on Sibel’s mind: her blond American boyfriend who accompanies her to Turkey; her energetic but distraught younger sister; and her devoted grandmother, who, Sibel comes to learn, carries a harrowing secret.

Delving into her family’s history, the narrative weaves through periods of political unrest in Turkey, from military coups to the Gezi Park protests. Told with pathos and humor, Sibel’s search for strange and unusual cures is disrupted as she begins to see how she might heal herself through the care of others, including her own family and its long-fractured relationships.

Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King

Told in the intimate voices of complex, endearing characters, Five Tuesdays in Winter intriguingly subverts expectations as it explores desire, loss, jolting violence, and the inexorable tug toward love at all costs. A reclusive bookseller begins to feel the discomfort of love again. Two college roommates have a devastating middle-aged reunion. A proud old man rages powerlessly in his granddaughter’s hospital room. A writer receives a visit from all the men who have tried to suppress her voice.

Romantic, hopeful, brutally raw, and unsparingly honest, this wide-ranging collection of ten selected stories by one of our most accomplished chroniclers of the human heart is an exciting addition to Lily King’s oeuvre of acclaimed fiction.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

Two teenagers, a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot, meet at a taverna on the island they both call home. In the taverna, hidden beneath garlands of garlic, chili peppers and creeping honeysuckle, Kostas and Defne grow in their forbidden love for each other. A fig tree stretches through a cavity in the roof, and this tree bears witness to their hushed, happy meetings and eventually, to their silent, surreptitious departures. The tree is there when war breaks out, when the capital is reduced to ashes and rubble, and when the teenagers vanish. Decades later, Kostas returns. He is a botanist looking for native species, but really, he’s searching for lost love.

Years later a Ficus carica grows in the back garden of a house in London where Ada Kazantzakis lives. This tree is her only connection to an island she has never visited — her only connection to her family’s troubled history and her complex identity as she seeks to untangle years of secrets to find her place in the world.

A moving, beautifully written, and delicately constructed story of love, division, transcendence, history, and eco-consciousness, The Island of Missing Trees is Elif Shafak’s best work yet.

The Days of Afrekete by Asali Solomon

Liselle Belmont is having a dinner party.

It seems a strange occasion ― her husband, Winn, has lost his bid for the state legislature ― but what better way to thank key supporters than a feast? Liselle was never sure about her husband becoming a politician, never sure about the limelight, never sure about the life of fundraising and stump speeches. Then an FBI agent calls to warn her that Winn might be facing corruption charges. An avalanche of questions tumbles around her: Is it possible he’s guilty? Who are they to each other; who have they become? How much of herself has she lost―and was it worth it? And just this minute, how will she make it through this dinner party?

Across town, Selena Octave is making her way through the same day, the same way she always does ― one foot in front of the other, keeping quiet and focused, trying not to see the terrors all around her. Homelessness, starving children, the very living horrors of history that made America possible: these and other thoughts have made it difficult for her to live an easy life. The only time she was ever really happy was with Liselle, back in college. But they’ve lost touch, so much so that when they ran into each other at a drugstore just after Obama was elected president, they barely spoke. But as the day wears on, memories of Liselle begin to shift Selena’s path.

Inspired by Mrs. Dalloway and Sula, as well as Audre Lorde’s Zami, Asali Solomon’s The Days of Afrekete is a deft, expertly layered, naturally funny, and deeply human examination of two women coming back to themselves at midlife. It is a watchful celebration of our choices and where they take us, the people who change us, and how we can reimagine ourselves even when our lives seem set.

Monster in the Middle by Tiphanie Yanique

When Fly and Stela meet in 21st Century New York City, it seems like fate. He’s a Black American musician from a mixed-religious background who knows all about heartbreak. She’s a Catholic science teacher from the Caribbean, looking for lasting love. But are they meant to be? The answer goes back decades — all the way to their parents’ earliest loves.

Vibrant and emotionally riveting, Monster in the Middle moves across decades, from the U.S. to the Virgin Islands to Ghana and back again, to show how one couple’s romance is intrinsically influenced by the family lore and love stories that preceded their own pairing. What challenges and traumas must this new couple inherit, what hopes and ambitions will keep them moving forward? Exploring desire and identity, religion and class, passion and obligation, the novel posits that in order to answer the question “who are we meant to be with?” we must first understand who we are and how we came to be.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

I would like to say a few things about my first husband, William.

Lucy Barton is a writer, but her ex-husband, William, remains a hard man to read. William, she confesses, has always been a mystery to me. Another mystery is why the two have remained connected after all these years. They just are.

So Lucy is both surprised and not surprised when William asks her to join him on a trip to investigate a recently uncovered family secret — one of those secrets that rearrange everything we think we know about the people closest to us. What happens next is nothing less than another example of what Hilary Mantel has called Elizabeth Strout’s “perfect attunement to the human condition.” There are fears and insecurities, simple joys and acts of tenderness, and revelations about affairs and other spouses, parents and their children. On every page of this exquisite novel we learn more about the quiet forces that hold us together — even after we’ve grown apart.

At the heart of this story is the indomitable voice of Lucy Barton, who offers a profound, lasting reflection on the very nature of existence. “This is the way of life,” Lucy says: “the many things we do not know until it is too late.”

Fight Night by Miriam Toews

“You’re a small thing,” Grandma writes, “and you must learn to fight.” Swiv’s Grandma, Elvira, has been fighting all her life. From her upbringing in a strict religious community, she has fought those who wanted to take away her joy, her independence, and her spirit. She has fought to make peace with her loved ones when they have chosen to leave her. And now, even as her health fails, Grandma is fighting for her family: for her daughter, partnerless and in the third term of a pregnancy; and for her granddaughter Swiv, a spirited nine-year-old who has been suspended from school. Cramped together in their Toronto home, on the precipice of extraordinary change, Grandma and Swiv undertake a vital new project, setting out to explain their lives in letters they will never send.

Alternating between the exuberant, precocious voice of young Swiv and her irrepressible, tenacious Grandma, Fight Night is a love letter to mothers and grandmothers, and to all the women who are still fighting-painfully, ferociously — for a way to live on their own terms.

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

It’s December 23, 1971, and the Hildebrandt family is at a crossroads. The patriarch, Russ, the associate pastor of a suburban Chicago church, is poised to break free of a marriage he finds joyless ― unless his brilliant and unstable wife, Marion, breaks free of it first. Their eldest child, Clem, is coming home from college afire with moral absolutism, having taken an action that will shatter his father. Clem’s sister, Becky, long the social queen of her high-school class, has veered into the era’s counterculture, while their younger brother Perry, fed up with selling pot to support his drug habit, has firmly resolved to be a better person. Each of the Hildebrandts seeks a freedom that each of the others threatens to complicate.

Universally recognized as the leading novelist of his generation, Jonathan Franzen is often described as a teller of family stories. Only now, though, in Crossroads, has he given us a novel in which a family, in all the intricacy of its workings, is truly at the center.

By turns comic and harrowing, a tour-de-force of interwoven perspectives and sustained suspense, Crossroads is the first volume of a trilogy, A Key to All Mythologies, that will span three generations and trace the inner life of our culture through the present day. Complete in itself, set in a historical moment of moral crisis, and reaching back to the early twentieth century, Crossroads serves as a foundation for a sweeping investigation of human mythologies, as the Hildebrandt family navigates the political, intellectual, and social crosscurrents of the past fifty years.

Fault Lines by Emily Itami

Mizuki is a Japanese housewife. She has a hardworking husband, two adorable children, and a beautiful Tokyo apartment. It’s everything a woman could want, yet sometimes she wonders whether she would rather throw herself off the high-rise balcony than spend another evening not talking to her husband and hanging up laundry.

Then, one rainy night, she meets Kiyoshi, a successful restaurateur. In him, she rediscovers freedom, friendship, and the neon, electric pulse of the city she has always loved. But the further she falls into their relationship, the clearer it becomes that she is living two lives—and in the end, we can choose only one.

Funny, provocative, and startlingly honest, Fault Lines is for anyone who has ever looked in the mirror and asked, who am I and how did I get here? A bittersweet love story and a piercing portrait of female identity, it introduces Emily Itami as a debut novelist with astounding resonance and wit.

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

“Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…”

To his customers and neighbors on 125th street, Carney is an upstanding salesman of reasonably priced furniture, making a decent life for himself and his family. He and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver’s Row don’t approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it’s still home.

Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger all the time.

Cash is tight, especially with all those installment-plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace, Ray doesn’t ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweler downtown who doesn’t ask
questions, either.

Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa — the “Waldorf of Harlem” — and volunteers Ray’s services as the fence. The heist doesn’t go as planned; they rarely do. Now Ray has a new clientele, one made up of shady cops, vicious local gangsters, two-bit pornographers, and other assorted Harlem lowlifes.

Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook. As Ray navigates this double life, he begins to see who actually pulls the strings in Harlem. Can Ray avoid getting killed, save his cousin, and grab his share of the big score, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to source for all your quality home furniture needs?

Harlem Shuffle‘s ingenious story plays out in a beautifully recreated New York City of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a hilarious morality play, a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to Harlem.

But mostly, it’s a joy to read, another dazzling novel from the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning Colson Whitehead.

Radiant Fugitives by Nawaaz Ahmed

Working as a consultant for Kamala Harris’s attorney general campaign in Obama-era San Francisco, Seema has constructed a successful life for herself in the West, despite still struggling with her father’s long-ago decision to exile her from the family after she came out as lesbian. Now, nine months pregnant and estranged from the Black father of her unborn son, Seema seeks solace in the company of those she once thought lost to her: her ailing mother, Nafeesa, traveling alone to California from Chennai, and her devoutly religious sister, Tahera, a doctor living in Texas with her husband and children.

But instead of a joyful reconciliation anticipating the birth of a child, the events of this fateful week unearth years of betrayal, misunderstanding, and complicated layers of love — a tapestry of emotions as riveting and disparate as the era itself.

Told from the point of view of Seema’s child at the moment of his birth, and infused with the poetry of Wordsworth and Keats and verses from the Quran, Radiant Fugitives is a moving tale of a family and a country grappling with acceptance, forgiveness, and enduring love.

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, deemed too coarse and rough-hewn for marriage or courtly life, seventeen-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey, its nuns on the brink of starvation and beset by disease.

At first taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, Marie steadily supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions. Marie, born the last in a long line of women warriors and crusaders, is determined to chart a bold new course for the women she now leads and protects. But in a world that is shifting and corroding in frightening ways, one that can never reconcile itself with her existence, will the sheer force of Marie’s vision be bulwark enough?

Equally alive to the sacred and the profane, Matrix gathers currents of violence, sensuality, and religious ecstasy in a mesmerizing portrait of consuming passion, aberrant faith, and a woman that history moves both through and around. Lauren Groff’s new novel, her first since Fates and Furies, is a defiant and timely exploration of the raw power of female creativity in a corrupted world.

The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers

The great scholar, W. E. B. Du Bois, once wrote about the Problem of race in America, and what he called “Double Consciousness,” a sensitivity that every African American possesses in order to survive. Since childhood, Ailey Pearl Garfield has understood Du Bois’s words all too well. Bearing the names of two formidable Black Americans — the revered choreographer Alvin Ailey and her great grandmother Pearl, the descendant of enslaved Georgians and tenant farmers — Ailey carries Du Bois’s Problem on her shoulders.

Ailey is reared in the north in the City but spends summers in the small Georgia town of Chicasetta, where her mother’s family has lived since their ancestors arrived from Africa in bondage. From an early age, Ailey fights a battle for belonging that’s made all the more difficult by a hovering trauma, as well as the whispers of women — her mother, Belle, her sister, Lydia, and a maternal line reaching back two centuries — that urge Ailey to succeed in their stead.

To come to terms with her own identity, Ailey embarks on a journey through her family’s past, uncovering the shocking tales of generations of ancestors — Indigenous, Black, and white — in the deep South. In doing so Ailey must learn to embrace her full heritage, a legacy of oppression and resistance, bondage and independence, cruelty and resilience that is the story — and the song — of America itself.

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

An interpreter has come to The Hague to escape New York and work at the International Court. A woman of many languages and identities, she is looking for a place to finally call home.

She’s drawn into simmering personal dramas: her lover, Adriaan, is separated from his wife but still entangled in his marriage. Her friend Jana witnesses a seemingly random act of violence, a crime the interpreter becomes increasingly obsessed with as she befriends the victim’s sister. And she’s pulled into an explosive political controversy when she’s asked to interpret for a former president accused of war crimes.

A woman of quiet passion, she confronts power, love, and violence, both in her personal intimacies and in her work at the Court. She is soon pushed to the precipice, where betrayal and heartbreak threaten to overwhelm her, forcing her to decide what she wants from her life.

Wayward by Dana Spiotta

On the heels of the election of 2016, Samantha Raymond’s life begins to come apart: her mother is ill, her teenage daughter is increasingly remote, and at fifty-two she finds herself staring into “the Mids” — that hour of supreme wakefulness between three and four in the morning in which women of a certain age suddenly find themselves contemplating motherhood, mortality, and, in this case, the state of our unraveling nation.

When she falls in love with a beautiful, decrepit house in a hardscrabble neighborhood in Syracuse, she buys it on a whim and flees her suburban life — and her family — as she grapples with how to be a wife, a mother, and a daughter, in a country that is coming apart at the seams.

Dana Spiotta’s Wayward is a stunning novel about aging, about the female body, and about female difficulty — female complexity — in the age of Trump. Probing and provocative, brainy and sensual, it is a testament to our weird, off-kilter America, to reforms and resistance and utopian wishes, and to the beauty of ruins. Tremendous new work from one of the most gifted writers of her generation.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

After being rescued as infants from a sinking ocean liner in 1914, Marian and Jamie Graves are raised by their dissolute uncle in Missoula, Montana. There — after encountering a pair of barnstorming pilots passing through town in beat-up biplanes — Marian commences her lifelong love affair with flight. At fourteen she drops out of school and finds an unexpected and dangerous patron in a wealthy bootlegger who provides a plane and subsidizes her lessons, an arrangement that will haunt her for the rest of her life, even as it allows her to fulfill her destiny: circumnavigating the globe by flying over the North and South Poles.

A century later, Hadley Baxter is cast to play Marian in a film that centers on Marian’s disappearance in Antarctica. Vibrant, canny, disgusted with the claustrophobia of Hollywood, Hadley is eager to redefine herself after a romantic film franchise has imprisoned her in the grip of cult celebrity. Her immersion into the character of Marian unfolds, thrillingly, alongside Marian’s own story, as the two women’s fates — and their hunger for self-determination in vastly different geographies and times — collide. Epic and emotional, meticulously researched and gloriously told, Great Circle is a monumental work of art, and a tremendous leap forward for the prodigiously gifted Maggie Shipstead.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun, the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her.

Klara and the Sun is a thrilling book that offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: what does it mean to love?

In its award citation in 2017, the Nobel committee described Ishiguro’s books as “novels of great emotional force” and said he has “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

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