16 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: April 2017

Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books we've read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli

Daniel Ford: Of all the Valeria Luiselli titles author Josh Cook recommended during our live podcast at Porter Square Books, of course I would choose the one with the F train on the cover.

Subway aesthetics aside, Luiselli’s inventive and trippy debut novel is everything you want in a genre-bending story. Is the main character the young woman navigating New York City while championing an obscure Mexican poet? Or is it the poet himself, a man in search of himself while destroying his family? Or, better yet, is our hero a mother juggling her matriarchal and literary responsibilities (while her marriage seemingly slips through her fingers)?

The more I read this novel, the less I cared about any of those questions. Reading Luiselli’s perfect sentences and reveling in the scenes (both large and small) she built was reward enough. Whether it was a Harlem sidewalk, a family’s home, a subway platform, or a character’s daydream, Luiselli crafted a world that felt intimate, lived in, and familiar.

I have more of her oeuvre to catch up on, but if this is the kind of work I can expect, then I’m going to have to revisit my upcoming reading list. There’s also a good chance Luiselli becomes a staple on “Books That Should Be On Your Radar.”

An Exaggerated Murder by Josh Cook

Daniel: Speaking of Josh Cook…

It was a real treat to sit down and pick his brain a couple weeks ago (along with Sirens author Joshua Mohr) about his writing process and his reading recommendations.

Like most trips to Porter Square Books, it ended with me walking out with an armful of fiction. The best part was Cook signed my copy of his novel An Exaggerated Murder and used a plethora of profanity.

I wasn’t surprised when the novel turned out to be a smart, fresh take on the detective genre. Cook’s characters are wonderfully flawed, earnestly eccentric, and hopelessly rationale in the face of a “stupid crime.” The pages start flying immediately, but make you take some time and truly appreciate the craftsmanship that went into this novel. We can’t wait to read what Cook writes next!

(P.S. The author will graciously sign a copy of the book provided you order it from Porter Square Books. Profanity costs extra.)

No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts

Adam Vitcavage: The Great Gatsby is one of the most read books in all of American literature. For better or worse F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel has been a cornerstone of what the American Dream is and what it can do to people. Stephanie Powell Watts’ No One is Coming to Save Us is a profound novel that explores the similar themes Fitzgerald's classic work laid out.

Make no mistake, this isn't merely a retelling of the Jazz Age classic; it is unique and only borrows Gatsby’s mindset. Set in North Carolina, Watts’ novel is about a man returning home to build his dream house to woo his long lost love. Unlike Gatsby, this novel explores America through African-American eyes, and we see factories crumbling and Jim Crow still lingering.

Watts’ prose eloquently takes us on a journey of loss and hope. What stands out even more than her beautiful writing is her rich characters that are some of the most memorable of recent years. Make no mistake, this book deserves to be taught in high schools as much as any other right now.

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

Daniel: When astronauts reach for the stars, who gets left behind on Earth? That’s the essential question Meg Howrey explores in her recently published novel The Wanderers.

Let me set the scene before I delve into this book’s eclectic cast of characters. A trio of astronauts is handpicked by a private space company to train for a potential mission to Mars. If all goes well, the group goes to Mars. If not, who knows. As thrilling as that sounds, and it is despite some of the monotony the space “wanderers” face, their thoughts are more tied to Earth than ever before in their career.

Everyone in this novel is searching for something, and likely nowhere close to finding it. Helen, a weathered, super-competent veteran of the U.S. space program who is much more at home in the cosmos, struggles to push away thoughts of her sad adolescence and loveless marriage. Her dramatic daughter “Meeps” grieves over the freak death of her father while also fearing for her mother’s safety, finding acting success, and developing a relationship in an unexpected place. Dmitri, whose astronaut father Sergei provides both comic relief and mild paranoia, unconventionally explores his sexual identity. And Yoshi, the crew’s third member, battles his own tortured past while also trying to emotionally connect with his distant, yet equally brilliant wife, Madoka.

That sounds like a lot of characters to juggle in one novel, but Howrey shifts perspectives so subtly and smoothly at exactly the right moments that you won’t have trouble keeping up with the novel’s events. If you’re anything like me, you’ll finish the last pages and think, “Wait, that’s it? I want more!” Trust me, do yourself a favor, spend some time with your head in the stars and read this book.

What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Adam: So far, 2017 has seen an incredible amount of short story collections. Add Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky to that growing list. Familial connections tie these stories together, but stylistically the stories vary from sort of science fiction to modern realism.

It’s mesmerizing what Arimah can do with a seemingly traditional idea and stretch it into something distinct. Stories include a generational tale about ghosts of war, a father’s attempts to protect his daughter, a woman desperate for a child, and more. However, there is much more to these stories than a simple fragmented synopsis. For instance, the mother who wants a child weaves one out of her hair. Get ready to be wowed by these stories.

The Whore's Child by Richard Russo

Daniel: “Just one story,” I told myself. “You have a reading list a mile long and the third season of ‘Grace and Frankie’ just dropped on Netflix. You don’t have time to read more than one story.”

Well, not for the first time, I lost an argument with myself and ended up reading every story in Richard Russo’s short story collection The Whore’s Child in 24 hours. Also not surprising, Russo’s empathetic—and often hilarious—style translates beautifully to the shorter storytelling format.

The real stand out in the collection is the eponymous “The Whore’s Child.” The story features an older nun who crashes a creative writing class and slowly realizes a painful family truth while writing a “fictional” memoir. The story shamelessly fiddles with your heartstrings, but it also offers biting meta-commentary on the writing process. Paired with Luiselli’s collection, The Whore’s Child should give you all the literary inspiration you need to craft your own short stories.

The Stand by Stephen King

Mike Nelson: The Stand is much more than a prerequisite to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, though that’s the catch that influenced me to dive in last summer (really hope my brother wasn’t lying to me about that, though it’d be a great prank). Yes, I wrote, “last summer,” and, yes, I know this column is meant to focus on books you recently read...we’re getting to that.

King takes readers on an epic, near-biblical journey through his version of the apocalypse, where forces of good are left to square off against forces of darkness in a battle for the earth’s soul. Or a battle for like, the western half of the United States, if you want to be super literal about it. Sitting at approximately a million pages and taking half-a-year for a very casual reader who stops to read other books in-between (out of necessity, I swear), The Stand is much more about the journey than it is the conclusion. As the world flirts with its desistance, how many of its occupants will seek to grant it an extension, and how many others will resign to fate no matter how dark?

If you don’t fear death...if you feel like you have everything in control...if you think humans are intrinsically good, spend some time with The Stand and tell me you feel the same. Or if you’re more like the man they call Trashcan Man, maybe just read it because you like to watch things burn.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Adam: Every year, April brings the welcome return of baseball in America. You better believe there is some “best baseball books” list that makes the rounds (even I wrote one on my blog in 2014). There’s a reason The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach gets recommended on every literature blog this time of year. It’s one of the best “baseball” books published. 

While the game plays a major role in this novel, it’s really about a young man’s evolution at a small college in Wisconsin. As the story progresses, baseball fades into the background for the majority of Harbach’s book as he explores sexuality, Moby Dick, confidence, and so much more.

Mad Men and Politics, co-authored and -edited by Lilly Goren

Daniel: I don’t need a good excuse to re-watch “Mad Men,” but I’m glad my recent podcast interview with Lilly Goren provided one. Goren appeared on the podcast recently to promote the thoughtful collection of essays she co-authored titled, Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America.

From Goren’s essay “If You Don’t Like What They Are Saying, Change the Conversation” The Grifter, Don Draper, and the Iconic American Hero” to Linda Beail’s “Invisble Men: The Politics and Presence of Racial and Ethnic ‘Others’ in ‘Mad Men,’” Mad Men and Politics takes a deep dive into how Matthew Weiner’s hit show depicted—both successfully and, some would debate, incompletely—corporate culture, machismo, feminism, race, family, war, and identity during the 1960s. Everything from Don Draper’s gray flannel suit and Joan Harris’ pen necklace to Peggy Olson’s rise and Bert Cooper’s stodginess are explored for political, sociological, and psychological context—both for that decade and our current era.

After reading these essays and re-watching a few episodes of the show, I’m reminded that in politics and culture it seems like everything has changed and nothing has changed. Obviously we’ve made strides as a society, but at the same time, we seem to be spinning our wheels with the same issues depicted in the show. Like any good academic or critical writing, Mad Men and Politics will force you to keep asking questions, and make you even hungrier to find the answers.

Dark Money by Jane Mayer

Daniel: Dark Money by New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer is essential reading for anyone baffled or troubled by what’s going on politically and culturally in this country. The exploration into where all the “dark money” being funneled into our political system comes from starts with a furrowed-brow meeting with some of the richest people in the United States (and the globe) after President Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain in the 2008 election. This powerful cabal vowed to finance the opposition to the new President through any means (legal, illegal, shadowy, etc.) necessary.  

However, as chilling as the details of that meeting are, it’s nothing compared to Mayer’s investigation into how families like the Kochs made their fortune and then wielded it like a weapon in order to advance a deeply conservative agenda. All of the information Mayer finds is unsettling. From the Koch brother’s father building oil refineries for the Nazis to the DeVos family buying millions of dollars worth of influence, Dark Money makes clear that the radical right is more or less a collection of talking points and sacks of cash.

To be sure, the Democrats would love to have a system this sophisticated and efficient. And if they had anything close to this kind of organization and money, they’d never lose another election again, and a few marginalized groups of citizens might actually get help purely by happenstance. However, a radical wing of the GOP—that believes in a hyper-nationalist, super-racist, and downright grim view of America—has hijacked our political agenda, and is well funded, in large part, by a very small group of individuals.

Dark Money may be uncomfortable reading, but we’re never going to break out of our current political paralysis by avoiding the truth.

The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich

Daniel: I got sucked into Paul Vidich’s The Good Assassin—the follow up to the author’s excellent debut spy thriller An Honorable Man that hits shelves April 18—just as easily as George Mueller gets suckered into doing yet another shadowy errand for the CIA.

Vidich’s Cold War setting feels immediate because of the political shenanigans currently infecting the United States. The author turns up the heat in The Good Assassin—literally and figuratively—by dropping his character in Havana before the fall of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Mueller is investigating Toby Graham, a potentially corrupt and treasonous CIA operative, who our hero has known since college.

A gripping plot combined with Vidich’s signature understated prose and tortured characters makes The Good Assassin a worthy follow up to An Honorable Man. It’s a novel that should be under your arm as you head to the beach this summer (or while swirling a glass of dark alcohol in a plush chair by the fire).

Author’s Corner

Dimitry Elias Léger isn’t just one of our favorite authors, he’s also one of our favorite readers. He sent over a lovely photograph from Geneva of his current book pile for this month’s Author’s Corner. This is what reading should look like!Daniel Ford

Pictured: Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, Paulo Coelho's The Spy, and Geoff Colvin's Humans Are Underrated.

Pictured: Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, Paulo Coelho's The Spy, and Geoff Colvin's Humans Are Underrated.

Dimitry Elias Léger is the author of God Loves Haiti. To learn more about Léger, listen/read our podcast and print interviews with the author.

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Tune in to this week’s “Friday Morning Coffee” for Dave Pezza and Daniel Ford’s discussion about Lisa Gardner’s novel Right Behind You.