2017 is coming to a close, but if there's one thing that stands out from this year, it's all of the great books. From poignant, socially conscious YA novels like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas to haunting short stories like Things We Lost In The Fire by Mariana Enriquez, 2017 was a year that shined bright with unforgettable literature. SEE ALSO: Amazon's top books of 2017 reflect the crazy-ass year we just lived through. This week on the MashReads Podcast, we look back and chat about what we read in 2017. Advertisement. Visit website.
The extraordinary friendship of an elderly songwriter and the precocious child of his single-parent neighbor is at the heart of this novel that darts back and forth through the decades, from the 1960s to the era of Brexit. The first in a projected four-volume series, it’s a moving exploration of the intricacies of the imagination, a sly teasing-out of a host of big ideas and small revelations, all hovering around a timeless quandary: how to observe, how to be.
Read our review of A deceptively simple conceit turns a timely novel about a couple fleeing a civil war into a profound meditation on the psychology of exile.
Magic doors separate the known calamities of the old world from the unknown perils of the new, as the migrants learn how to adjust to an improvisatory existence.
Hamid has written a novel that fuses the real with the surreal — perhaps the most faithful way to convey the tremulous political fault lines of our interconnected planet. Read our review of Lee’s stunning novel, her second, chronicles four generations of an ethnic Korean family, first in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century, then in Japan itself from the years before World War II to the late 1980s.
Exploring central concerns of identity, homeland and belonging, the book announces its ambitions right from the opening sentence: “History has failed us, but no matter.” Lee suggests that behind the facades of wildly different people lie countless private desires, hopes and miseries, if we have the patience and compassion to look and listen.
Read our review of Alderman imagines our present moment — our history, our wars, our politics — complicated by the sudden manifestation of a lethal “electrostatic power” in women that upends gender dynamics across the globe. It’s a riveting story, told in fittingly electric language, that explores how power corrupts everyone: those new to it and those resisting its loss.
Provocatively, Alderman suggests that history’s horrors are inescapable — that there will always be abuses of power, that the arc of the universe doesn’t bend toward justice so much as inscribe a circle away from it.
“Transfers of power, of course, are rarely smooth,” one character observes. Read our review of In her follow-up to “Salvage the Bones,” Ward returns to the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Miss., and the stories of ordinary people who would be easy to classify dismissively into categories like “rural poor,” “drug-dependent,” “products of the criminal justice system .
” Instead Ward gives us Jojo, a 13-year-old, and a road trip that he and his little sister take with his drug-addicted black mother to pick up their white father from prison.
And there is nothing small about their existences. Their story feels mythic, both encompassing the ghosts of the past and touching on all the racial and social dynamics of the South as they course through this one fractured family. Ward’s greatest feat here is achieving a level of empathy that is all too often impossible to muster in real life, but that is genuine and inevitable in the hands of a writer of such lyric imagination.
Read our review of If a science book can be subversive and feminist and change the way we look at our own bodies — but also be mostly about birds — this is it. Prum, an ornithologist, mounts a defense of Darwin’s second, largely overlooked theory of sexual selection. Darwin believed that, in addition to evolving to adapt to the environment, some other force must be at work shaping the species: the aesthetic mating choices made largely by the females. Prum wants subjectivity and the desire for beauty to be part of our understanding of how evolution works.
It’s a passionate plea that begins with birds and ends with humans and will help you finally understand, among other things, how in the world we have an animal like the peacock. Read our review of Even those who think they are familiar with Ulysses S. Grant’s career will learn something from Chernow’s fascinating and comprehensive biography, especially about Grant’s often overlooked achievements as president.
What is more, at a time of economic inequality reflecting the 19th century’s Gilded Age and a renewed threat from white-supremacy groups, Chernow reminds us that Grant’s courageous example is more valuable than ever, and in this sense, “Grant” is as much a mirror on our own time as a history lesson.
Read our review of A former public defender in Washington, Forman has written a masterly account of how a generation of black officials, beginning in the 1970s, wrestled with recurring crises of violence and drug use in the nation’s capital.
What started out as an effort to assert the value of black lives turned into an embrace of tough-on-crime policies — with devastating consequences for the very communities those officials had promised to represent. Forman argues that dismantling the American system of mass incarceration will require a new understanding of justice, one that emphasizes accountability instead of vengeance. Read our review of Fraser’s biography of the author of “Little House on the Prairie” and other beloved books about her childhood during the era of westward migration captures the details of a life — and an improbable, iconic literary career — that has been expertly veiled by fiction.
Exhaustively researched and passionately written, this book refreshes and revitalizes our understanding of Western American history, giving space to the stories of Native Americans displaced from the tribal lands by white settlers like the Ingalls family as well as to the travails of homesteaders, farmers and everyone else who rushed to the West to extract its often elusive riches.
Ending with a savvy analysis of the 20th-century turn toward right-wing politics taken by Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, Fraser offers a remarkably wide-angle view of how national myths are shaped. Read our review of In this affectionate and very funny memoir, Lockwood weaves the story of her family — including her Roman Catholic priest father, who received a special dispensation from the Vatican — with her own coming-of-age, and the crisis that later led her and her husband to live temporarily under her parents’ rectory roof.
She also brings to bear her gifts as a poet, mixing the sacred and profane in a voice that’s wonderfully grounded and authentic. This book proves Lockwood to be a formidably gifted writer who can do pretty much anything she pleases.
Read our review of
best dating books 2017 - BBC
White Tears Hari Kunzru | Fiction White Tears? That is a provocative title. As the saying goes, all tears matter. So what kind of tears are we talking here? Tears of joy? It's a phenomenal book that changes shape. The first section will make you cry from laughter, as it sends up music hipsterdom. Then you'll cry tears of sadness after those hipsters start to suffer real consequences.
And in the stunning final act, you'll cry tears of fear— Tears for fears. —when the novel transforms into straight up horror. It’s the rare book that does everything—a vital story that reckons with American history in an extraordinarily modern way.
> > Hari Kunzru Recommends: Of all the books I read last year, the most mind-bendingly futuristic was one I can't believe was published over twenty years ago. Greg Egan's Permutation City imagines a future in which the human mind can be scanned and uploaded into virtual worlds, offering a kind of eternal life.
Like all the best science fiction, it explores philosophical territory that would be impossible in any other form. As the world around us gets weirder and more unstable, Permutation City feels like it's getting closer. Exit West Mohsin Hamid | Fiction Lemme guess, this is a book about Kim leaving Kanye. WOW. Just… wow. I had to go there. Exit West is a novel about two people emigrating from an unnamed country. There are fantastical elements—doorways that allow the two main characters to travel from place to place with ease.
So whereas most stories about refugees are about the difficulty of movement, Mohsin Hamid has written a book about the difficulty of place. Also, the writing is really stunning, almost fable-like in its lyricism. > > Mohsin Hamid Recommends: I reread Jorge Luis Borges's Fictions this year. If you haven't read it, you're very lucky. Do. His writing is exquisite, compressed, beautiful, funny.
His short stories manage to contain bigger ideas than the biggest novels. He is utterly global in his knowledge and influences. And I think he is the best writer we have on the online world and the internet, even though he died well before such things actually existed.
American War Omar El Akkad | Fiction You know how whenever there’s a mass shooting, people are reluctant to call it terrorism? Especially if the shooter is white? [ solemn nodding] Well, in Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, he imagines a second Civil War in 2074 that erupts after the government passes a ban on fossil fuels. Damn liberals! We start with the rebellion in the South with a young girl named Sarat. After her father is killed, she and her family are sent to a refugee camp where her hatred of “the Blues” festers, and slowly, Sarat is radicalized into a violent rebel.
Even outside of American War’s obvious timeliness and real-world parallels, its just a tremendous exercise in empathy in fiction.
> > Omar El Akkad Recommends: The best thing I read in 2017 is This Accident of Being Lost by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a book that has taken up permanent residence in my heart. It is a beautiful collection of stories and songs concerned with the fragility and resilience of heritage, connection and love—all at once a scream and a whisper, a work of perfect quietness and overwhelming volume. It’s also, in many parts, funny as hell.
Killers of the Flower Moon David Grann | Nonfiction Do you like true crime? I like American Vandal. Close enough. Killers of the Flower Moon is chronicles the “Reign of Terror”—a five-year span in the 1920s when over two dozen Osage people were mysteriously killed. I’m guessing it wasn’t a coincidence. Yes, detective. People were after the Osage people’s oil money. And in tandem with that horrifying story is the rise of the FBI, which J.
Edgar Hoover created as a means to muscle his way into power. This book is incredibly researched and stunningly written. > > David Grann Recommends: I have long been a compulsive reader of detective novels, but, somehow, I only this year discovered the remarkable works of Ross MacDonald.
I pored through The Underground Man, Sleeping Beauty, The Moving Target, The Galton Case, The Drowning Pool, The Chill, and, perhaps my favorite of the bunch, The Blue Hammer.
Their plots are wildly intricate, but what sets these books apart, and makes MacDonald a worthy heir of Dashiell Hammett, is their psychological depth. Rarely has a simple probing question been deployed to such devastating effect. Meet Me in the Bathroom Lizzy Goodman | Nonfiction Because I haven't listened to new music since college, I know that Meet Me in the Bathroom is a Strokes reference. Yes! And among other bands featured in this wild portrait of early ‘00s New York: the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, Interpol, TV on the Radio, Vampire Weekend, among many others.
The book is basically a big, long oral history of the rise of indie rock over a decade. It really encapsulates a moment. Okay, but I want to know how much gossip is in it. There’s a lot of it in here. The Strokes stall out when Albert Hammond Jr. gets addicted to heroin—which leads to a confrontation between the band and Ryan Adams, who apparently supplied Hammond Jr. with the smack. James Murphy comes across as an opportunist. Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was disparagingly nicknamed “midget Elvis.” The book is full of spirit and shade.
> > Lizzy Goodman Recommends: There is no author on the planet who has a more versatile vision than Jennifer Egan. We are talking about a woman who wrote one of the most genre defying, experimental, truly punk novels ever, with A Visit from the Goon Squad, and has now followed up that weirdo work with a seemingly straight forward piece of historical fiction— Manhattan Beach—that turns out to be just as compelling.
This novel unfolds with all the delicious, absorbing pleasure of a great, almost trashy mystery, but resonates on the deep, profoundly human level that makes for Serious Literature. Brava. Made for Love Alissa Nutting | Fiction Describe this book with emojis. Ugh, why? Because it's 2017. Hmm, ok: 🙍 👨💻 👫 ➡️ ❌ 🖥 📱 🕵️ 🙅 😏 👉 👌 🐬 So this book is about a woman who hates her nerd husband, but when she tried to leave him, he used a myriad of technologies to surveil her, and also there is a random guy who wants to fuck a dolphin.
Wow you... actually nailed that. That's exactly what Made for Love is about. 😎 > > Alissa Nutting Recommends: Wrenchingly sad comedic fiction is my year-round love language, but I find it especially necessary during the holidays.
Patty Yumi Cottrell's peerless debut novel Sorry to Disrupt the Peace crushes me into fetal position every time, and I'm so masochistically thankful. While investigating a suicide, the book's sharp philosophical humor delves straight into the mystery of suffering and the abyss—it's a perfect, aching antidote to "the season." Ghosts of the Tsunami Richard Lloyd Parry | Nonfiction Ghosts of the Tsunami?
So it’s like 👻 of the 🌊. This book is about the 2011 tsunami in Japan and all the people it killed. And, more to the point, all the people it didn’t kill. Well, now I feel like an asshole for using emoji. Richard Lloyd Parry spent six years collecting accounts from survivors, the culmination of which is this intimate portrait of calamity. There’s a lot to take in, but the most remarkable idea is that Japan is better prepared for disasters than any other country in the world, at least in terms of training and infrastructure.
But nothing really prepares people for tragedy. That sounds unbearably sad. It's actually written in a way that's measured, never overdramatic. But… yeah, it’s pretty heartbreaking all the way through. > > Richard Lloyd Parry Recommends: At a literary festival in Bangladesh earlier this year, I encountered a tall, ex-patriate Englishman in a linen jacket named Lawrence Osborne. Out of curiosity, I started reading his first novel, The Forgiven.
On the face of it, it’s a mildly thriller-ish satire about upper-class foreigners who come a terrible cropper in Morocco.
But its greatest qualities are in its beautifully controlled language and merciless, multi-layered irony. Osborne’s like a grown-up version of Graham Greene, an Evelyn Waugh or Edward St Aubyn without the snobbery and cruelty. I immediately ordered everything else he has published, including his latest, the widely praised Beautiful Animals. Homesick for Another World Ottessa Moshfegh | Fiction Is this a sci-fi book? The title and cover might relay that, but this is not science fiction, though its tone is otherworldly.
Homesick has a lot of damaged people: meth addicts, alcoholics, people who rub crystal skulls. You know, the usual suspects. Love to read about my exes!
Moshfegh’s work hinges on the strength and strangeness of her voice. And each story here is strange, some even weirdly moving. The perfect Christmas gift for the English major in your life. > > Ottessa Moshfegh Recommends: I recently read Aghori: At the Left Hand of God, by Robert Svoboda. It's mostly the words of the Aghori teacher, Vimalananda. A book has never made me feel so happy: affirming that experience is happening beyond the material world reminds me, for one, to shut out all the bells and whistles of capitalist brainwashing.
My life is way more interesting with this in mind, and I can laugh at the absurdity in myself and others instead of blaming it for my misery. Life in Code Ellen Ullman | Nonfiction As someone who learned the basics of HTML from editing my Xanga template in middle school, I feel like I can relate to a book called Life in Code. Ellen Ullman is maybe the best tech essayist we have. She's built a career dissecting, through personal experience, the ways people must act to move through the tech sphere.
The title is a double entendre. Two entendres, got it. It's about, among other things, being a woman in tech. That sounds... timely. It is and it isn't. Each essay captures a different year of Silicon Valley, dating back to 1994. I didn't realize Uber had been around that long. If 2017 has proven anything, it's that the misogyny of technology predates Uber and will outlive Uber. > > Ellen Ullman Recommends: I found I had to re-read Djuna Barnes's The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and and 5 Drawings.
From the poem “Seen from the ‘L’”: "Ravelling grandly into vice / Dropping crooked into rhyme. / Slipping through the stitch of virtue, / Intro crime." From “Twilight of the Illicit”: "Lips long lengthened by wise words / Unsaid." Readers can find the short book online on UPenn's Digital Library, which had the temerity to post it under "A Celebration of Women Writers." Women writers, women writers, women writers.
It's time, by god, that we be celebrated as writers. Mrs. Fletcher Tom Perrotta | Fiction Tom Perrotta, why does that name sound familiar? He wrote The Leftovers—both the original novel and its TV adaptation. I didn’t watch that. It’s really good! I get it—. Anyway, the entire novel is predicated on the titular Mrs. Fletcher receiving an errant text from a friend of her teenage son, declaring her a MILF. What is a MILF? I've seen your search history. You know what a MILF is.
I just wanted to see if I could get you to spell it out. In some ways, that's sort of what Mrs. Fletcher attempts to do: hilariously trick its readers into confronting the social mores of sex. Perrotta is a satirist of the suburbs, and Mrs. Fletcher is nothing if not constantly hilarious. > > Tom Perrotta Recommends I’d been meaning to read to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for years, but for some reason kept putting it off.
When he won the Nobel Prize this fall, I finally stopped procrastinating, and I’m glad I did. Never Let Me Go is a sneaky masterpiece—what begins as a melancholy coming-of-age novel slowly morphs into one of the most convincing dystopian nightmares I’ve ever encountered. This is a book about what it means to be human in a society that systematically denies the humanity of some its members.
It will haunt you. Little Fires Everywhere Celeste Ng | Fiction Speaking of the suburbs, Little Fires Everywhere takes place in what was supposed to be a utopian community outside of Cleveland called Shaker Heights.
What makes a suburb utopian? Like, nine malls? It followed Shaker ideals—equality, diversity, planning, that good stuff. Basically all the Shakers died out and now the town is just a regular old suburb full of well meaning people who don’t know all that much about how racism works, which makes it a rich setting for Celeste Ng’s book. After a white family attempts to take custody of a Chinese baby, seemingly abandoned at a fire station, people in Shaker Heights become divided on whether the cross-racial adoption is okay.
And is it okay? Little Fires doesn’t really offer any easy answers! But we do get, through a handful of well-drawn characters and voices, a smart and often sincere glimpse into all the ways people delude themselves. > > Celeste Ng Recommends: Weike Wang's Chemistry is a story about love and family and expectations of all kinds—from parents, from partners, from yourself—told in little gemlike sections that combine to be much more than the sum of those parts.
It's slim enough to be wolfed down in one sitting, yet rich enough to merit an immediate re-read. Uncomfortably Happily Yeon-Sik Hong | Nonfiction Is it a comic or a graphic novel? What is the difference to you?
One is… more pretentious sounding. Well, this Korean comic is a memoir about leaving the city for the rural life. Hong and his wife buy a place in the idyllic mountains outside of Seoul. In a lot of ways, what follows is mundane and fairly predictable. Living away from the city isn’t as easy (or as inexpensive) as they’d hoped. But the comic’s simplicity and buoyant nature gives the story a universal feel. Besides, who can’t relate to money-related anxiety?
The rich? You know, sometimes I think the rich . > > Hellen Jo (Translator) Recommends: In this neon collection of Anna Haifisch's weekly VICE comics, The Artist, we follow a fragile young bird-being who struggles as an artist in the big city: he clumsily navigates the art party scene, his Tumblr work is misunderstood by gallerists and parents alike, he languishes alone and uncelebrated on a bare mattress on the floor.
But Haifisch imbues him with an anxious optimism fortified by beer and not knowing any better, and asks that we regard him "with nothing but love and mercy." Locking Up Our Own James Forman Jr. | Nonfiction This one’s gonna be a doozy, isn’t it? Sure is! Locking Up Our Own is a clear-eyed history of the mass incarceration of black men in America.
It’s thorough, but focuses on a central tragedy: that most of the policies that put black men in jail didn’t come from inherently racist policies. From the ‘70s through the ‘90s, black activists and policymakers lobbied for stronger sentences for drug and gun possession as a means of combating local crime.
The inadvertent result was harsher punishments and more black men in prison. And the name James Forman sounds familiar. Yeah, his father was a prominent figure in the Civil Rights movement. Forman Jr. is accomplished in his own right—a professor at Yale, which definitely gives him the background to write this book.
But it’s maybe the six years he spent as a public defender that give Locking Up Our Own its most potent ideas. Essential reading. > James Forman Jr. Recommends: I can’t stop talking about A Stone of Hope, written by Jim St. Germain and Jon Sternfeld.
St. Germain suffered childhood trauma that would break most people. He sold drugs, fought, and was repeatedly arrested. But he also found people in a group home who treasured him, and helped him reclaim himself. Imagining alternatives to America’s monstrous criminal system requires that we listen to people who have been inside—people like St.
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If you ever thought that neuroscience was too boring or complicated for pleasurable reading, “Behave” will change your mind. You’ll find yourself guffawing at Sapolsky’s quirky humor, and you’ll begin to question whether that decision you made so many years ago not to go into the sciences might have been too hasty. A professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, Sapolsky brings together a variety of scientific disciplines to tackle a fundamental mystery: What drives humans to harm each other or help each other?
He finds the answers in our biology and takes readers on a journey through the nervous system, hormones, evolution and the environment. For any layperson who wants to understand why we behave the way we do, Sapolsky has created an immensely readable, often hilarious, romp through the worlds of psychology, primatology, sociology and neurobiology.
Penguin Press Review: Vladimir Putin has inspired a number of books seeking to explain his remarkable rise — and his remarkable hold on power.
Few accounts are as ambitious, insightful and unsparing as Gessen’s “The Future Is History.” This is a sweeping intellectual history of Russia over the past four decades, told through a Tolstoyan gallery of characters. It makes a convincing if depressing case that Homo Sovieticus, the unique species created a century ago with the Bolshevik Revolution, did not die out along with the Soviet Union. What makes the book so worthwhile are its keen observations about Russia from the point of view of those experiencing its heavy-handed state.
Gessen’s provocative conclusion that Putin’s Russia is just as much a totalitarian society as Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany may not convince all readers. But you don’t need to agree with this assessment to find her book a sad, compelling indictment of the country where she was born, a country so traumatized by its monstrous past that it seems intent on repeating it.
Riverhead Review: This gut-wrenching account of the death and life of Eric Garner is a deep dive into every aspect of the case, including its legal impact, which is minimal, and its cultural and political ones, which have been profound. Most revealing are the stories Taibbi tells about other African Americans, mostly male and poor, who were stopped and frisked, strip-searched, sexually assaulted, set up, beaten or killed for the tragic reason that racist cops didn’t like them or the even more tragic one that those kinds of humiliations are ordained by U.S.
law and policy. The stories relate to one another and to the Garner case, which gives “I Can’t Breathe” the feel of a police procedural. The narrative unfolds like an episode of “The Wire” but without the comic relief — or the show’s grudging empathy for the cops. Some readers might object to Taibbi’s tone of sustained outrage. But the author is mad as hell at the police and the politics that empower their brutality.
Spiegel & Grau Review: In her memoir of 15 years of covering jihadists, journalist Mekhennet sets out to answer a perennial question: Why do they hate us? As a Muslim woman and brave, resourceful reporter who speaks English, German, French and Arabic, Mekhennet seems well-suited to the task. She explains the nature of reporting on jihad in her role as a Washington Post national security correspondent, the time spent waiting for sources to call back, puzzling over whom to trust.
On several occasions, she gets anonymous tips about imminent danger to her life and whether militants or hostile governments intend to kidnap, torture or rape her.
Her portrayals of al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters and sympathizers in countries around the world make her memoir a work of significant merit. But what of her original question? In her telling, the root of hate is not Islam; it’s not U.S. politics or foreign policy, nor is it American racism or Islamophobia.
The answer is elusive and troublingly mysterious. Henry Holt Review: Too often, our standards of literary greatness exclude comic novels — which is usually fine because there are so few great comic novels. But you should make more room for “Less.” In the opening pages, a writer named Arthur Less is depressed about turning 49.
His anxiety about aging has been exacerbated by news that his former boyfriend is about to get married to a younger man. Confronted with the prospect of sitting through their wedding, Less decides to send his regrets and flee. He blindly accepts the invitations he’s received from around the world: a hodgepodge of teaching assignments, retreats and readings. Those gigs provide the novel’s structure — a different country for each chapter — and Greer is brilliantly funny about the awkwardness that awaits a traveling writer of less repute.
Unfailingly polite, hypersensitive to the risk of boring anyone, Less remains congenial throughout, but “the tragicomic business of being alive is getting to him.” This is the comedy of disappointment distilled to a sweet elixir.
Lee Boudreaux Review: “Lincoln in the Bardo” is an extended national ghost story, an erratically funny and piteous séance of grief. The spirit of the story arises from a tragic footnote in American history when President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, died of typhoid fever during the Civil War.
Everything about Saunders’s first novel, which won the Man Booker Prize, confounds our expectations of what a novel should look and sound like. It’s composed entirely of brief quotations — some real, some imagined — from people who worked for the president, his friends, colleagues, enemies, biographers and, most strikingly, ghosts trapped in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, where Willie was laid to rest.
Despite that bizarre chorus, the heart of the story remains Lincoln, the shattered father who rides alone to the graveyard at night. As the spirits pass through the president’s body like light through a glass, they catch his thoughts and fears. We can hear Lincoln wrestling with his faith, struggling to maintain his composure against an avalanche of grief and a torrent of criticism from a nation devastated by war. Random House Review: Excitement about this dystopian novel has been arcing across the Atlantic since it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this year in England.
Alderman’s premise is simple, her execution endlessly inventive: Teenage girls everywhere suddenly discover that their bodies can produce a deadly electrical charge. The capacity of women to shock and awe quickly disrupts the structure of civilization. The narrative moves from an American girl’s bedroom to a British gang’s hangout, to a European forest and beyond, tracing the way this new power surges through families and governments, singeing male pride, inflaming chauvinism and burning the patriarchy to a crisp.
This surprising and provocative story deconstructs not just the obvious expressions of sexism but also the internal ribs of power that we have tolerated, honored and romanticized for centuries.
Alderman’s story sparks with such electric satire that you should read it wearing insulated gloves. Little, Brown Review: This probing doorstop of a biography explores the calculations Barack Obama made in the decades leading up to winning the presidency. Garrow portrays Obama as a man who ruthlessly compartmentalized his existence and made emotional sacrifices in the pursuit of his goal.
Every step — whether his foray into community organizing, Harvard Law School, even his choice of whom to love — was not just about living a life but also about fulfilling a destiny. The book is most revealing in its account of Obama’s personal life, particularly the tale of a woman of Dutch and Japanese ancestry the future president lived with before he met Michelle.
After asking her to marry him, Obama had a change of heart. As Garrow puts it, for black politicians in Chicago, a non-African American spouse could be a liability. Garrow, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., concludes with a damning verdict on Obama’s determination: “While the crucible of self-creation had produced an ironclad will, the vessel was hollow at its core.” William Morrow Review: From the outside, nothing about this plot seems noteworthy: Irish Catholics settle in Boston; they drink too much; they struggle with the church; they gather for a loved one’s wake.
That sounds as fresh as a pint of last week’s Guinness, which makes this quiet masterpiece all the more impressive. In a style that never commits a flutter of extravagance, Sullivan draws us into the lives of the Raffertys and, in the rare miracle of fiction, makes us care about them as if they were our own family.
In the present, the story takes place over just a few days — the period between when 50-year-old Patrick Rafferty loses control of his car and when he’s laid out at his funeral. But within those hours, Sullivan spins the captivating history of Patrick’s mother and her sister, reaching all the way back to a little Irish village in the late 1950s.
Knopf Review: “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is built around an arduous car trip when a black woman and her children drive to a state penitentiary to pick up their white father. The narration passes back and forth between the convict’s 13-year-old son and his drug-addled mother, Leonie. Ward draws us deep into the bile of a woman who sometimes dislikes her children and often resents their claims on her.
But Leonie’s failings, which she knows are numerous, have been aggravated by addiction, grief and a racist culture that offers her no opportunity and little justice. These are people “pulling all the weight of history.” Ward, one of the most powerfully poetic writers in the country, represents those necrotic claims with a pair of restless ghosts, the unburied singers of the title, who speak to Leonie and her son. The plight of this one family is tied to intersecting crimes that stretch over decades.
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