Elizabeth Strout

LISTcavage: 10 Books From 2008

Adam Vitcavage liked lists long before Buzzfeed figured out how to monetize them. Now he wants to share his love of lists with you. Each week, he’ll round up a list featuring anything anything pop culture related from literature to music to cool designers that you should buy prints from. Welcome to LISTcavage.

Each year, hundreds of books end up making a variety of “best of” lists across print and the Web (including Daniel Ford’s top 35 books of 2017). With each passing year, it seems like some of these amazing books get left on the bottom shelf in personal libraries covered in dust. Here are 10 fiction novels from a decade ago that are worth revisiting or reading for the first time if you missed them the year “High School Musical 3” hit cinemas.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (2008 Man Booker Award winner)

What’s the story? Balram is a poor rickshaw driver who uses his wit to climb India’s entrepreneurial and social ladder.

What did critics think then? “Balram's appealingly sardonic voice and acute observations of the social order are both winning and unsettling,” (The New Yorker); "Fierce and funny...A satire as sharp as it gets,” (The Seattle Times); “One of the most powerful books I've read in decades. No hyperbole,” (USA Today).

That’s great, why should I read it now? Out of the books I’ve read set in India, this one was one of two where I felt completely transported to the country. Adiga’s prose hits all five senses as he lets us navigate the world with Balram.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2009 Pulitzer Prize winner)

What’s the story? Linked short stories reveal the life of the stern title character in a rural Maine town.

What did critics think then? “Funny, wicked and remorseful, Mrs. Kitteridge is a compelling life force, a red-blooded original,” (The San Francisco Chronicle); “Rarely does a story collection pack such a gutsy emotional punch,” (Entertainment Weekly); “Perceptive, deeply empathetic,” (O: The Oprah Magazine).

That’s great, why should I read it now? Interconnected short stories are fairly common, but Stout was able to write completely fresh tales that individually stand out while also having a tight cohesion others have failed at.

Home by Marilynne Robinson

What’s the story? An alcoholic returns home after two decades away as he begins to bridge the gap between him and his father, the town’s beloved reverend.

What did critics think then? “A literary miracle,” (Entertainment Weekly); “An exquisite, often ruefully funny meditation on redemption,” (Vogue); “Its last fifty pages are magnificently moving,” (The New Yorker).

That’s great, why should I read it now? Robinson’s sense of place in all of her work is top notch. She is a master of immersion and she’s at her pinnacle with this novel.

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

What’s the story? Set in the 1940s Jim Crow South, the novel focuses on the racism and prejudice in Mississippi and what it means to be a man.

What did critics think then? “The novel's inevitable closing scenes are painfully violent, utterly memorable and surprisingly rich in cultural metaphor and well-wrought literary ploy,” (Rocky Mountain News); “A superbly rendered depiction of the fury and terror wrought by racism,” (Publishers Weekly)

That’s great, why should I read it now? It was just made into a well-received Netflix film, but, like always, the novel is considerably better.

What’s the story? Part historical fiction, part biography, part science fiction. These genres are blended to reveal the hidden truth of Nikola Tesla’s life.

What did critics think then? “Full of vivid imagery, sounds, memories, and dreams, this novel is a sweet story of just how normal it is to be different,” (Boston Globe); “It is a rare thing for a writer to conjure belief and true understanding, but with The Invention of Everything Else, Samantha Hunt has accomplished exactly that,” (Philadelphia Inquirer); “Oddly charming and pleasantly peculiar,” (Booklist).

That’s great, why should I read it now? Hunt’s ability to take the normal and find something haunting and magical is a true gift. She discovers her talent here. It’s a true treat to see this novel compared to her most recent efforts of Mr. Splitfoot and The Dark Dark.

The Believers by Zoë Heller

What’s the story? After a man has a stroke, his wife discovers a secret that will change how she viewed her marriage and entire life. Then her children find out and everyone’s world gets turned upside-down.

What did critics think then? “Heller astutely delves into the deepest, most uncomfortable areas of human nature,” (Bookmarks Magazine); “This novel showcases her copious gifts, including a scathing, Waugh-like wit,” (The New York Times).

That’s great, why should I read it now? Heller is a masterful writer that should be studied. This might not be her greatest work, but every writer should read what works for an author as well as what falls a little flat.

The Widows of Eastwick by John Updike

What’s the story? A sequel to the famed Witches of Eastwick that takes place three decades later.

What did critics think then? “Ingenious . . . This isn’t writing. It is magic,” (The New York Times Book Review); “Here’s a bet his work will keep fresh for generations, inciting laughter, wonder and sensuous shivers,” (Los Angeles Times).

That’s great, why should I read it now? It’s Updike’s last novel released prior to his 2009 death. Give the man some respect.

Lush Life by Richard Price

What’s the story? A crime novel in Manhattan’s Lower East Side that starts off straightforward, but quickly sprawls into a modern social commentary.

What did critics think then? “Richard Price knows how crime sounds and smells,” (Esquire); “One of the best writers of dialogue in the history of American literature,” (The New York Review of Books); “Deftly written… beautifully expressive,” (Los Angeles Times).

That’s great, why should I read it now? If you’re a crime suspense fan, this is a case study for the ages. The dialogue in particular proves Price still has it after decades in the business.

What’s the story? One of those stories where three lives unexpectedly come together to transform the trajectory of their future.

What did critics think then? “Meticulously plotted and affecting thriller,” (Miami Herald); "Uncategorizable, unputdownable, Atkinson's books are like Agatha Christie mysteries that have burst at the seams-they're taut and intricate but also messy and funny and full of life,” (Time).

That’s great, why should I read it now? Atkinson knows how to keep readers guessing about what happens next. Her two most recent releases overshadow this book, but it should make its way onto your bookshelf; especially if you’re a fan of those two bestsellers everyone seemingly has read.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

What’s the story? A historical coming-of-age story about a young woman during the infancy of the slave trade in the 1600s.

What did critics think then? “A poetic, visionary, mesmerizing tale,” (Vanity Fair); “A masterpiece of rewarding complexity,” (The Sunday Times); “Perhaps the greatest pleasure of the book lies in drawing one in so completely; there are no places where faulty construction hurls us back into reality,” (California Literary Review).

That’s great, why should I read it now? Morrison’s near dozen novels have explored race, politics, gender, and feminism. This was her last one to receive critical acclaim across the board before producing two receptively mixed-reviewed novels in 2012 and 2015.

8 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: February 2016

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.

Lay Down Your Weary Tune By W. B. Belcher

Daniel Ford: “I wrote this book for you!” W.B. Belcher said to me during my interview with the author. Boy, he wasn’t kidding. A reclusive folk music icon with a shadowy past, a writer/musician yearning for a second chance, a tortured love story, and small town politics are all themes that hit me right where I live.

Belcher’s hero, Jack Wyeth, has exhausted all of his best friend’s good will and is about to be kicked out on his ass when he gets an opportunity to ghostwrite folk hero Eli Page’s life story. The job takes Jack to the small town of Galesville and the banks of the Battenkill River, where he’ll confront not only Eli’s deteriorating mental health, but also his own troubled backstory. Every sentence of this novel is strummed from the heart, and Belcher tees up questions every angsty creative type has considered (without providing anything but ephemeral answers, of course). 

“We’re all here for one thing,” Eli says to Jack, “to find a live connection and hold onto it until it bucks us off.”

Damn, that’s good stuff. I look forward to buying Belcher a beer when he comes to Cambridge in March and toasting the live connection he created with his memorable, earthy characters and heartfelt prose.

Ghettoside by Jill Levoy

Daniel: For lovers of true crime and current events, Jill Levoy’s Ghettoside is a must read. In fact, it should be required reading for all American citizens. Levoy lays out the grim statistics regarding black homicide in Los Angeles, and the U.S. as a whole, toward the beginning of the book, and then, through exceptional reporting, masterfully illuminates the startling numbers through the eyes of police officers and victims’ families in Southern Los Angeles. While Levoy frames the book around the murders of Dovon Harris and Bryant Tennelle, she never fails to put their deaths in broader context—revealing how urban communities actually operate and how the limited resources detectives operate with affect the way authorities police violent crime.

I couldn’t help but think of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and David Simon’s “The Wire” while reading Levoy’s narrative. All have added to my understanding of an America I don’t know or quite accurately grasp. The issues of race, proper police procedures, and poverty should (and I hope will) be debated throughout the 2016 Presidential election, which makes Ghettoside all the more relevant.   

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist by Sunil Yapa

Gary Almeter: It makes sense that the alluringly bright cover of Sunil Yapa’s debut novel features a blurb from Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin (a book that takes place in the midst of Philippe Petit's Aug. 7, 1974 walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center). Yapa's book also takes place in one, similarly chaotic day, this one on Nov. 30, 1999 amidst the WTO protests of Seattle. I think it must take ambition, creativity, and a little bit of experimentation to be able to create a novel that packs all its action into a single day. Think of James Joyce's Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, Michael Cunningham's "The Hours," Anne Tyler's road trip novel Breathing Lessons, and Ian McEwan's Saturday.

I could give a hoot about the WTO and delegates and international trade. And luckily one does not need to in order to love this book (which I did). Yapa has a great time (like McCann did with 1974) recreating the fear and tumult that was the latter half of 1999. Its opening line, "The match struck and sputtered," jolts us back to a time before vaping was king. The characters confront, avoid, bypass, stumble into, and battle with one another. Their problems are somehow simultaneously huge in the way they affect one another and minute in the face of the geopolitical issues being discussed in the hotel around which they congregate.

It was a far more tumultuous, and interesting, time than we might recall and Yapa renders it beautifully.

The Exploding Detective by John Swartzwelder

Sean Tuohy: John Swartzwelder's writing was the heart and soul of the “The Simpsons.” After leaving the world of television writing behind, he turned to novels. If you like peeing yourself or snapping a bone from laughing so hard then pick up this goofy, off-the- wall novel that features a mix of noir time travel, super heroes, and humor. This short (but really, really funny) book follows Frank Burly, a dim witted private detective, who bumbles through his fight against crime with an exploding jet pack.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Daniel: I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection. I know there is an equally well-regarded HBO mini-series based on the book that I also haven’t consumed. After reading Strout’s recently published novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, I’m going to have to recalibrate my reading/viewing priorities.

Lucy Barton lands in a New York City hospital for nine weeks following what should have been a routine surgery. Her harried husband is taking care of her daughters as she struggles to recover. She awakes one day to find her mother at the edge of her bed. The two have never had the best relationship, and her mother’s visit slowly reveals the depths of Barton’s complex family life.

I’m a sucker for books that play with the idea of memory and family drama, so I clung to all the foggy reminiscences the two characters had in the short time they were together. Despite being incredibly short, the novel packs an emotional punch that will linger on your cheek well after you’ve moved on to your next read.   

A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti

Daniel: The last couple of years have seen really quality fiction tackle the wars in the Middle East, including Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Eliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, and Ross Ritchell’s The Knife. Author Matthew Hefti’s sensational debut novel belongs right alongside those works.

Hefti novel employs an innovative structure that gives the story a deeply personal foundation. Levi, the book’s main character, is writing a letter to his lifelong friend Nick to say goodbye before he kills himself. Inspired by 9/11, Levi and Nick both served in the armed forces overseas, and were wounded both physically and emotionally. The two friends bond, and are drawn into conflict, over military snafus, the same woman (the deliciously broken Eris), and coming home to a world much different (for them) than the one they left.  

Hefti’s narrative (which is interrupted by Levi’s second-person insights) is incredibly well paced. There were times I had to catch my breath because I was living and dying with each sentence. Hefti beautifully captures the struggles our veterans face in coming home from the fog of war. As I said earlier, life is different for them, while it’s been the same for everyone else. It’s clear that Hefti fell in love with all of his characters because he provides them with such depth and emotion, which, of course, will make you fall in love with them just as hard.    

I also have to respect any author who inserts himself into his own novel. During our podcast interview, Hefti said, “Levi is all Levi and Nick is all Nick,” but he couldn’t resist adding himself into a tense scene in the middle of the book. As a fellow writer, I cheered out loud when I read it. The writing process (especially when dealing with a heavy topic like this) can be drudgery, so I applaud any effort to make it as fun as possible.

Massacre on the Merrimack by Jay Atkinson

Daniel: Hannah Duston…what a badass! Jay Atkinson’s nonfiction narrative follows a 39-year-old settlers’ wife who is captured by Indians—who smash her week-old child up against a tree—and ends up dealing out brutal justice to her captors in order to escape back to what’s left of her family. Atkinson, a Massachusetts native, intersperses New England’s rich history between Duston’s harrowing plight, which gives the reader a much deeper understanding of the political and sociological issues facing early North American settlers. Readers are also sure to love Goodwife Bradley, whose story is featured in the chapter named “The Fate of Other Captives.” She’s every bit as badass as Duston, and showcases the same bravery and flintiness exhibited by Atkinson’s main heroine. Danger, sacrifice, and death surrounded colonists during that era, but Duston and the other woman show the type of steely resolve necessary to hack out a living in a wild, ungoverned country. In Atkinson’s own words, “As a storyteller, what’s not to like?”

The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall

Daniel: I honestly can’t remember what it was like watching my favorite television shows without reading Alan Sepinwall’s reviews and recaps (which can be found on HitFix.com). I held off on buying earlier editions of The Revolution Was Televised in anticipation of the author’s additional thoughts on the "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" finales. Stephanie Schaefer smartly chose the book as my birthday present last month, and I finished it in two days. The Revolution Was Televised features interviews with a variety of showrunners—including the three Davids (Chase, Milch, and Simon), Vince Gilligan, and Matthew Weiner—analysis on some of my favorite shows (“Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “The Sopranos,” and “Friday Night Lights”), and Sepinwall’s breezy, charming writing style. I also gained an appreciation for shows I didn’t necessarily enjoy (“Lost” and “24”), and found new shows to explore once I’m done binge-watching “The Americans” (“The Shield” and “Oz). This book is essential reading for television junkies.