I’m absurdly fond of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column in The Believer. His reading taste is so wide-ranging that I forgive the lack of transitions between paragraphs; the books aren’t related, so why bother contriving a connection? Better to use the limited word count to talk about more books.
My taste runs a bit more narrowly to literary fiction (though Nick might like Against Football by Steve Almond), and I’ve read enough new fiction in the past couple months to justify a roundup. Without further ado:
My friend and fellow librarian Brita recommended The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai. Brita has impeccable taste and I’d read Makkai’s first novel, The Borrower, not long ago, so it didn’t take too much of a push for me to pick this one up, and I’m so glad I did. The story is set in and around a house called Laurelfield – a private residence or arts colony, depending on the year – and told backward, starting in 1999, skipping back to 1955, then to 1929, then a “prologue” in 1900. This structure lends a puzzle-like feel to the book, as readers must hold details in their heads as the story moves backward, picking up additional pieces and fitting them in. In addition to compelling characters and a plot filled with secrets and twists, Makkai employs a number of familiar elements – a locked attic, an archive, blackmail, a hidden painting, false identities, buried bodies, a haunted house – and weaves them into a delightful, satisfying story that feels entirely unique.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters is a long, tense read. It’s set in London after the first World War. Frances has lost her brothers in the war, and her father has died; she and her mother are forced to take in a couple of lodgers (“paying guests”) to make ends meet. Despite class differences, Frances becomes friends, and then more, with one of the lodgers. They plan to run away together, but are interrupted and surprised one night. A moment of violence shatters their plans and puts their future in jeopardy. The Paying Guests is full of period detail and suspense. I enjoyed it, but I’ve been told I really need to read Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet to get the classic Sarah Waters experience.
I picked up a galley of The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton at BEA in May, attracted by the editor’s description and the gorgeous cover. Set in Amsterdam in the 1700s, it’s the story of Nella, who comes from the country to marry a wealthy merchant. Prepared to be a wife, she is instead ignored; Johannes buys her an expensive dollhouse, a replica of the real house, and leaves her alone with his sister, Marin, and two servants. “It is not a man she has married,” Nella observes, “but a world.” Obviously something is not quite right, but it is a little while before Nella discovers precisely what. In the meantime, Nella writes to a miniaturist to begin filling the dollhouse with figurines, but the mysterious miniaturist sends more than Nella asked for, and seems to know more about the family than should be possible – even more than Nella knows. Burton brings Amsterdam to life in this slow-burning story, and though the truth about the miniaturist is never fully revealed, I found the story satisfying regardless.
An Italian Wife by Ann Hood was another BEA galley. I hadn’t read Ann Hood before, and I enjoyed The Italian Wife, the story of an Italian immigrant, Josephine, and her large family. The title refers to Josephine, but there are many Italian wives in the book, and most of them, to some extent, follow the same pattern: their husbands and boyfriends call the shots, sex is a chore (or worse), life consists of housework and child care and little else. Though the larger world changes around them, their small Italian-American community stays remarkably the same, and even the ones who leave don’t break free of the entrenched gender roles, until, perhaps, Josephine’s great-granddaughter Aida. Hood writes about selected members of the family, so the book is almost like a collection of linked stories, but it comes back around to Josephine in the end.
A co-worker had a galley of Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, and then I read an interview with the author in Shelf Awareness. Those two things together convinced me to read the book, and I’m so glad I did. At the outset it reminded me of Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way, but other than the disappeared-girl aspect, the novels aren’t that similar. Everything I Never Told You is the story of the Chinese-American Lee family: parents James and Marilyn, and children Nath, Lydia, and Hannah. When Lydia disappears, the family is stunned, and the reader is puzzled, but as more is revealed about each character, it begins to make sense. The whole family is under the pressure of racial discrimination – sometimes subtle, sometimes less so – but Lydia is under the additional pressure of her mother’s expectations: that she will fulfill Marilyn’s own thwarted dream of a medical career. This is one of those books that makes you ache for a family in which communication of the important truths seems impossible, despite the love they have for one another.
I read The Magicians and The Magician King, books one and two in Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, back in 2011, and I wasn’t sure if I’d remember them well enough to enjoy The Magician’s Land, but it got such glowing reviews (such as the one from Edan Lepucki in the Sunday Book Review) that I went ahead…and it was fantastic. Quentin Coldwater at thirty is incalculably more fun to spend 400 pages with than Quentin at eighteen: still clever but less egotistical, more sure of his place in the world and less whiny. Having been ejected from Brakebills and Fillory, he embarks on a heist to steal a suitcase with unknown contents; Plum, an ex-Brakebills student and a Chatwin descendant, is in on the heist as well. When it goes awry, the two of them hide out in Plum’s apartment in Manhattan, where Quentin turns his attention to a new spell: a spell to make a land. When that, too, goes awry, but brings back niffin-Alice, Quentin focuses on getting her back into her human form. At this point, Eliot shows up to announce that Fillory is dying, and Quentin returns to see if he can avert the apocalypse.
The Magician’s Land is funny and clever; it’s a victory tour through familiar landmarks, a denouement for all the characters readers got to know in the first two books. Because the characters inhabit the real world as well as the magical one, it’s full of pop culture fantasy and sci-fi references (Harry Potter, Narnia, Doctor Who, etc.). I had mixed feelings about The Magicians, but now I think I’ll go back and re-read it, the better to appreciate The Magician’s Land.
Last but not least, some new nonfiction: I first heard of Steve Almond’s book Against Football at BEA, and I knew I had to read the book when he agreed to be the featured speaker at our library’s first book festival this November. I got a galley from the publisher and zipped through it in a day. It turns out that, like being a vegetarian, there are a good number of valid reasons to be against football: social, cultural, economic, and political reasons, any one of which should be enough to turn public opinion against the sport, or at least the sport as it is played, funded, and televised today. Realistically, we probably can’t hope for much except for a few reforms, but at least those will be a step in the right direction. Almond’s writing is passionate and easy to follow, even for someone who isn’t familiar with the details of the game. And if you’re local, you can come see him speak at the Robbins Library on November 1!
That’s it for me for now. Have any of these titles piqued your interest? What else have you been reading lately?