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.
The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang
Daniel Ford: Jade Chang’s debut novel, The Wangs vs. The World, crackles with angsty verve, frustration, and familial crisis. The Wang family is incredibly dysfunctional, but also fervently proud and wondrously entertaining. Patriarch Charles Wang’s delusions of reclaiming ancestral lands in China, which exacerbate after losing his cosmetic empire, set the story in motion, and events quickly envelop his unsuspecting, and somewhat damaged, children. A tragically comedic family road trip ensues, offering one cringe-worthy humiliation after another. Chang brilliantly shifts perspectives between the main characters—including the car Charles repossesses from his hired help!—and doesn’t let the narrative let up for a moment.
While the plot and tone certainly make for exciting reading, what distinguishes The Wangs vs. The World is its truly unforgettable characters. One can’t help but love the self-made (and self-destroyed) Charles, his successful, yet recently disgraced, eldest daughter Saina (whose Upstate New York house the family is fleeing to), and his youngest daughter grace, a financially needy social media star. However, for me, Andrew, the lone Wang son, stole the spotlight. He’s unfailingly earnest and sweet, even when he’s bombing on stage trying to get his stand-up comedy career off the ground. To be sure, each of them faces issues that are serious and potentially ruinous, but the Wangs also make you laugh out loud while you watch them burn their lives to the ground.
In The Wangs vs. The World, Chang explores many of the themes you’ll find in the other novels we recommend this month—family bonds, the struggle with the American dream, the immigrant experience, wealth, financial ruin, and race—but does so with an unparalleled joie de vivre. This novel is landing on a lot of “Best Of” lists for 2016, and deservedly so. Don’t miss out on one of the most fun reads of the year!
The Infinite by Nick Mainieri
Daniel: I picked up Nick Mainieri’s stellar debut novel The Infinite thinking I’d only read a few chapters to get a feel for his work so that I was prepared for my interview with him. I ended up racing through 100 pages, and only put the book down because my eyes had dried out, my hands were cramped, and morning was rapidly approaching outside my window.
The Infinite’s star-crossed teenage lovers, the unflinchingly loyal Jonah McBee and Luz Hidalgo, an illegal immigrant trying to outpace her “ghost runner,” are two of my favorite characters from 2016. Jonah attempts to hold everything in his life together with baling wire and a dream, while Luz struggles to find acceptance both in New Orleans and across the border in Mexico. When an unexpected pregnancy tears their relationship apart, Luz and Jonah travel paths that converge, but never really intertwine as tightly as during their charmed beginning. Luz’s experiences in particular are jarring and violent, ending in a place far different than you might imagine.
That’s the other hallmark of Mainieri’s freshman novel. It is a constant surprise that never feels overburdened with red herrings or unnecessary plot devices. John Irving once remarked that good writers shouldn’t indulge in twists and turns that the reader doesn’t see coming. He said the most effective literary surprises are those the reader will look back on and think, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense.” That logic is exactly what Mainieri expertly deploys in The Infinite. Jonah and Luz’s fates feel earned and appropriate.
I had to keep reminding myself that this was a debut novel. Much like Taylor Brown’s Fallen Land, Julia Claiborne Johnson’s Be Frank With Me, and M.O. Walsh’s My Sunshine Away, The Infinite reads like it’s penned from a well known master storyteller. Mainieri deftly explores post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans and a drug war-addled Mexico in pursuit of discovering the true natures of his main characters. I very much look forward to what Mainieri does next.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins
Adam Vitcavage: Kathleen Collins might not be a name you recognize. She was a playwright, filmmaker, writer, and an African-American civil rights activist who died in her forties in 1988. So why is this 27-year-old white guy, whose life never overlapped with the author’s, writing about her? A collection of her stories called Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? knocked me on my ass, that's why. Her sixteen stories offer poignant insight into everyday life for African-Americans in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Collins earnestly invites readers into intimate stories like they were lifelong bosom buddies. The ease of the author’s writing balances the explosive content filling the collection, and while these stories are decades old, their themes are more relevant than ever at the close of one of the most racially turbulent years in modern history.
The Loved Ones by Sonya Chung
Daniel: Sonya Chung’s The Loved Ones is a compulsive read that is exquisitely structured. The novel’s crunchy, broken characters tell a mutigenerational immigrant saga, a mixed race family struggle, and a coming-of-age tale all at once. Chung juggles these multiple perspectives and cultures with ease, and allows her themes to unfurl deliberately throughout a narrative that’s set primarily in Washington D.C. during the mid-1980s and early 1990s.
You can’t help rooting for Chung's characters despite some of their actions. Charles Lee, the African American patriarch whose father abandoned him, tries to do right by his family while also fighting against his inner demons and an increasingly distant wife. Hannah Lee, the teenage daughter of Korean immigrants who were shunned by their own family for falling in love, uncertainly steps into adulthood and becomes tragically intertwined with Charles’ family. Hannah’s parents silently internalize being ostracized, while also stubbornly clinging to their once forbidden love. Charles’ daughter Veda anchors the novel’s final act, coming into her own without being hurt too much by her family’s dysfunction.
A death early on in the novel sets all of these threads in motion, and sends Chung’s main characters in various, and often times opposite, directions. The second half of The Loved Ones is a fascinating exploration of grief and self-discovery that pairs so well with the author’s heartfelt prose and poignant dialogue. The resolution to Hannah Lee’s parent’s story, in particular, is one of the most moving scenes I’ve read in fiction this year. I’m getting dusty in Writer’s Bone HQ just thinking about it.
Chung’s voice isn’t just a welcome one in the literary world; it’s a necessary one as we try to make sense of our increasingly uncertain future.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Daniel: I would pay good money to write like Zadie Smith. There’s real craftsmanship behind her prose, dialogue, and characters, and she asks big questions without beating you over the head them. Her exploration of a lifelong friendship touches on myriad themes that could easily be extrapolated into individual novels. Race, class, philanthropy, politics, family, friendship, companionship, globalism, identity, wealth, poverty, fame, commercialism, and art are all issues that are examined through her ever-evolving narrator’s eyes.
Swing Time lives up to its name, swaying effortlessly through multiple decades of the main character’s life and cities and villages around the world. However, with the exception of a scandal hinted at in the prologue, there’s nothing that necessarily propels the narrative forward; you’ve got to completely buy into a character study that, as a Kansas City Star reviewer pointed out, lacks a certain mirth at times. Rather than a weakness, I think that Smith’s straightforward, unadorned style is a strength; she’s much more interested in her characters’ search for joy than whatever cheap thrill one might feel when watching a performance of “Guys and Dolls” or a Fred Astaire film.
Swing Time will certainly inspire discussion and debate between readers, and I imagine those conversations will intensify once the novel is brought to the small screen.
The Pavilion of Former Wives by Jonathan Baumback
Daniel: There's something Paul Auster-like about Jonathan Baumbach's new short story collection The Pavilion of Former Wives. You may not always be able to figure out what’s real and what’s imagined in his characters’ lives, but you will appreciate the author’s determined pursuit of universal truths. Baumbach utilizes tough, but tender, dialogue, and provocative prose to explore the nature of relationships. This collection features a man who gets to re-live some of the most sorrowful moments of his life, a relationship purely defined by emails, a man who loses his parked car (!), and, my personal favorite, a stranded poet who meets a troubled woman at a train station. The Pavilion of Former Wives, much like Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble, finds the humanity in oddball stories that will haunt you well after you put them down.
Night School by Lee Child
Daniel: I’ve been reading Lee Child’s work since my college roommate put Killing Floor in my hands more years ago than I’m willing to admit. It was a pleasure being the audience while Child discussed Jack Reacher and his approach to writing with Stephen King last year at Harvard. It was even cooler hearing Child’s passion for his character and future plans during his appearance on “Friday Morning Coffee” with Sean Tuohy. We recommend a lot of weighty fiction, particularly this month, but it’s important to remember that reading should also be fun. There’s no better literary palate cleanser than a Jack Reacher adventure, and Night School is no exception. It’s pure escapism that will remind you why you started reading in the first place.
Dive into the pages of Margaret Atwood’s recently published Hag-Seed and suddenly find yourself caught up in a play within a novel within the retelling of another play. Part of Hogarth’s new series where contemporary authors were asked to reinterpret several of the Bard’s texts in a modern day setting, The Tempest is the tossed landscape here. Atwood’s task was considerable and the resulting novel is as touching and beautifully orchestrated as are the magical works of Prospero himself.
Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote
Truman Capote’s haunting coming of age novel Other Voices, Other Rooms is exquisitely crafted and filled with fluttering, unforgettable characters clinging to a lazy, long ago South, as seen through the eyes of a young boy. If you haven’t read Capote’s explosive debut before or lately, the Master awaits.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch certainly takes its time, but anyone familiar with Donna Tartt knows there is no rush when she’s telling the story. While the novel winds mostly around a shadow-struck Manhattan, it also feels lush and richly told as our hero navigates his Salinger-esque way through the sudden loss of his mother and the uncertainty of what else could possibly happen afterward.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Finally, when someone says, “There are no words” to describe something, tell ‘em to pick up a copy of Moby Dick. Extraordinary.
Be sure to listen to the audio edition of "Books That Should Be On Your Radar!"