Books in the Bag
Books in the Bag
The Vulnerable by Sigrid Nunez
Elegy plus comedy is the only way to express how we live in the world today, says a character in Sigrid Nunez’s ninth novel. The Vulnerables offers a meditation on our contemporary era, as a solitary female narrator asks what it means to be alive at this complex moment in history and considers how our present reality affects the way a person looks back on her past.
Humor, to be sure, is a priceless refuge. Equally vital is connection with others, who here include an adrift member of Gen Z and a spirited parrot named Eureka. The Vulnerables reveals what happens when strangers are willing to open their hearts to each other and how far even small acts of caring can go to ease another’s distress. A search for understanding about some of the most critical matters of our time, Nunez’s new novel is also an inquiry into the nature and purpose of writing itself.
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.
Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward
“‘Let us descend,’ the poet now began, ‘and enter this blind world.’” —Inferno, Dante Alighieri
Let Us Descend is a reimagining of American slavery, as beautifully rendered as it is heart-wrenching. Searching, harrowing, replete with transcendent love, the novel is a journey from the rice fields of the Carolinas to the slave markets of New Orleans and into the fearsome heart of a Louisiana sugar plantation.
Annis, sold south by the white enslaver who fathered her, is the reader’s guide through this hellscape. As she struggles through the miles-long march, Annis turns inward, seeking comfort from memories of her mother and stories of her African warrior grandmother. Throughout, she opens herself to a world beyond this world, one teeming with spirits: of earth and water, of myth and history; spirits who nurture and give, and those who manipulate and take. While Ward leads readers through the descent, this, her fourth novel, is ultimately a story of rebirth and reclamation.
From one of the most singularly brilliant and beloved writers of her generation, this miracle of a novel inscribes Black American grief and joy into the very land—the rich but unforgiving forests, swamps, and rivers of the American South. Let Us Descend is Jesmyn Ward’s most magnificent novel yet, a masterwork for the ages.
Wellness by Nathan Hill
When Jack and Elizabeth meet as college students in the gritty ’90s Chicago art scene, the two quickly join forces and hold on tight, each eager to claim a place in the thriving underground scene with an appreciative kindred spirit. Fast-forward twenty years to suburban married life, and alongside the challenges of parenting, they encounter the often-baffling pursuits of health and happiness from polyamorous would-be suitors to home-renovation hysteria.
For the first time, Jack and Elizabeth struggle to recognize each other, and the no-longer-youthful dreamers are forced to face their demons, from unfulfilled career ambitions to childhood memories of their own dysfunctional families. In the process, Jack and Elizabeth must undertake separate, personal excavations, or risk losing the best thing in their lives: each other.
A Council of Dolls by Mona Susan Power
From the mid-century metropolis of Chicago to the windswept ancestral lands of the Dakota people, to the bleak and brutal Indian boarding schools, A Council of Dolls is the story of three women, told in part through the stories of the dolls they carried….
Sissy, born 1961: Sissy’s relationship with her beautiful and volatile mother is difficult, even dangerous, but her life is also filled with beautiful things, including a new Christmas present, a doll called Ethel. Ethel whispers advice and kindness in Sissy’s ear, and in one especially terrifying moment, maybe even saves Sissy’s life.
Lillian, born 1925: Born in her ancestral lands in a time of terrible change, Lillian clings to her sister, Blanche, and her doll, Mae. When the sisters are forced to attend an “Indian school” far from their home, Blanche refuses to be cowed by the school’s abusive nuns. But when tragedy strikes the sisters, the doll Mae finds her way to defend the girls.
Cora, born 1888: Though she was born into the brutal legacy of the “Indian Wars,” Cora isn’t afraid of the white men who remove her to a school across the country to be “civilized.” When teachers burn her beloved buckskin and beaded doll Winona, Cora discovers that the spirit of Winona may not be entirely lost…
A modern masterpiece, A Council of Dolls is gorgeous, quietly devastating, and ultimately hopeful, shining a light on the echoing damage wrought by Indian boarding schools, and the historical massacres of Indigenous people. With stunning prose, Mona Susan Power weaves a spell of love and healing that comes alive on the page.
Land of Milk and Honey by C Pam Zhang
A smog has spread. Food crops are rapidly disappearing. A chef escapes her dying career in a dreary city to take a job at a decadent mountaintop colony seemingly free of the world’s troubles.
There, the sky is clear again. Rare ingredients abound. Her enigmatic employer and his visionary daughter have built a lush new life for the global elite, one that reawakens the chef to the pleasures of taste, touch, and her own body.
In this atmosphere of hidden wonders and cool, seductive violence, the chef’s boundaries undergo a thrilling erosion. Soon she is pushed to the center of a startling attempt to reshape the world far beyond the plate.
Sensuous and surprising, joyous and bitingly sharp, told in language as alluring as it is original, Land of Milk and Honey lays provocatively bare the ethics of seeking pleasure in a dying world. It is a daringly imaginative exploration of desire and deception, privilege and faith, and the roles we play to survive. Most of all, it is a love letter to food, to wild delight, and to the transformative power of a woman embracing her own appetite.
Night Watch by Jayne Anne Phillips
In 1874, in the wake of the War, erasure, trauma, and namelessness haunt civilians and veterans, renegades and wanderers, freedmen and runaways. Twelve-year-old ConaLee, the adult in her family for as long as she can remember, finds herself on a buckboard journey with her mother, Eliza, who hasn’t spoken in more than a year. They arrive at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in West Virginia, delivered to the hospital’s entrance by a war veteran who has forced himself into their world. There, far from family, a beloved neighbor, and the mountain home they knew, they try to reclaim their lives.
The omnipresent vagaries of war and race rise to the surface as we learn their story: their flight to the highest mountain ridges of western Virginia; the disappearance of ConaLee’s father, who left for the War and never returned. Meanwhile, in the asylum, they begin to find a new path. ConaLee pretends to be her mother’s maid; Eliza responds slowly to treatment. They get swept up in the life of the facility—the mysterious man they call the Night Watch; the orphan child called Weed; the fearsome woman who runs the kitchen; the remarkable doctor at the head of the institution.
Epic, enthralling, and meticulously crafted, Night Watch is a stunning chronicle of surviving war and its aftermath.
The Wren, the Wren by Anne Enright
Nell McDaragh never knew her grandfather, the celebrated Irish poet Phil McDaragh. But his love poems seem to speak directly to her. Restless and wryly self-assured, at twenty-two Nell leaves her mother Carmel’s orderly home to find her own voice as a writer (mostly online, ghost-blogging for an influencer) and to live a poetical life. As she chases obsessive love, damage, and transcendence, in Dublin and beyond, her grandfather’s poetry seems to guide her home.
Nell’s mother, Carmel McDaragh, knows the magic of her Daddo’s poetry too well ― the kind of magic that makes women in their nighties slip outside for a kiss and then elope, as her mother Terry had done. In his poems to Carmel, Phil envisions his daughter as a bright-eyed wren ascending in escape from his hand. But it is Phil who departs, abandoning his wife and two young daughters. Carmel struggles to reconcile “the poet” with the father whose desertion scars her life, along with that of her fiercely dutiful sister and their gentle, cancer-ridden mother. To distance herself from this betrayal, Carmel turns inward, raising Nell, her daughter, and one trusted love, alone.
The Wren, the Wren brings to life three generations of McDaragh women who must contend with inheritances ― of poetic wonder and of abandonment by a man who is lauded in public and carelessly selfish at home. Their other, stronger inheritance is a sustaining love that is “more than a strand of DNA, but a rope thrown from the past, a fat twisted rope, full of blood.” In sharp prose studded with crystalline poetry, Anne Enright masterfully braids a family story of longing, betrayal, and hope.
The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff
A servant girl escapes from a colonial settlement in the wilderness. She carries nothing with her but her wits, a few possessions, and the spark of god that burns hot within her. What she finds in this terra incognita is beyond the limits of her imagination and will bend her belief in everything that her own civilization has taught her.
Lauren Groff’s new novel is at once a thrilling adventure story and a penetrating fable about trying to find a new way of living in a world succumbing to the churn of colonialism. The Vaster Wilds is a work of raw and prophetic power that tells the story of America in miniature, through one girl at a hinge point in history, to ask how — and if — we can adapt quickly enough to save ourselves.
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.
Tom Lake by Ann Patchett
In the spring of 2020, Lara’s three daughters return to the family’s orchard in Northern Michigan. While picking cherries, they beg their mother to tell them the story of Peter Duke, a famous actor with whom she shared both a stage and a romance years before at a theater company called Tom Lake. As Lara recalls the past, her daughters examine their own lives and relationship with their mother, and are forced to reconsider the world and everything they thought they knew.
Tom Lake is a meditation on youthful love, married love, and the lives parents have led before their children were born. Both hopeful and elegiac, it explores what it means to be happy even when the world is falling apart. As in all of her novels, Ann Patchett combines compelling narrative artistry with piercing insights into family dynamics. The result is a rich and luminous story, told with profound intelligence and emotional subtlety, that demonstrates once again why she is one of the most revered and acclaimed literary talents working today.
The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese
The Covenant of Water is the long-awaited new novel by Abraham Verghese, the author of Cutting for Stone. Published in 2009, Cutting for Stone became a literary phenomenon, selling over 1.5 million copies in the United States alone and remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years.
Spanning the years 1900 to 1977, The Covenant of Water is set in Kerala, on South India’s Malabar Coast, and follows three generations of a family that suffers a peculiar affliction: in every generation, at least one person dies by drowning — and in Kerala, water is everywhere. The family is part of a Christian community that traces itself to the time of the apostles, but times are shifting, and the matriarch of this family, known as Big Ammachi — literally “Big Mother” — will witness unthinkable changes at home and at large over the span of her extraordinary life. All of Verghese’s great gifts are on display in this new work: there are astonishing scenes of medical ingenuity, fantastic moments of humor, a surprising and deeply moving story, and characters imbued with the essence of life.
A shimmering evocation of a lost India and of the passage of time itself, The Covenant of Water is a hymn to progress in medicine and to human understanding, and a humbling testament to the hardships undergone by past generations for the sake of those alive today. It is one of the most masterful literary novels published in recent years.
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