Student Picks: The Book of Strange New Things

Arun Chittur - Despite the several weeks it took for me to finish Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, I recommend it strongly as an example of fiction that explores tough philosophical questions using a plausible, speculative approach. It’s science fiction without being over-the-top, a world easy to imagine as a successor to our present.

An Earthbound multi-national leads an effort to colonize an alien world to support mining of a valuable mineral. Unlike James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar, the indigenous population capitulates and learns to live as humans overtake them. At some point in an undefined past, a visitor from Earth introduces the Christian Bible to the planet—this leads to hundreds of converts looking for someone to lead them in their question to understand the story of Christ as told in the “Book of Strange New Things.”

Faber crafts a deeply flawed character in Peter, the pastor enlisted by the corporation to minister to the new converts. He leaves behind a family and war-torn world for a new dawn in his own journey as a man and a Christian. We are left to wrestle alongside him with questions of love, loss, and our responsibility to this world and the next.


Student Picks: Johnson

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Ashley Bales-- Denis Johnson spent his career writing “people who totaled their souls,” “Not bad people, not evil people, but actually storms of innocence. Deadheads telling their tears.” He explored “the violence inside a man.” He discussed death, ruminated on the psyche’s physical confinement within the body, within the strictures of society.  He was fascinated with the paired concepts of freedom and constraint and his characters tested the limits of these boundaries. He dismissed moral systems that would dehumanize his characters because of this struggle. In Already Dead, Johnson strings these ideas together in a meandering plot that serves as a scaffold for his most comprehensive exploration of the human experience as a struggle between the soul, society, and the physical world.

The characters in Already Dead inhabit a world of violence. Nelson Fairchild spends the book running from killers. His brother William is a recluse, attacked by rays coming through the air itself. Carl Van Ness is a weaponized body, his soul no longer present. When Nelson Fairchild is finally caught by the assassins pursuing him, his consciousness expands, his last moments become infinite, he lies on a beach dying and “[begins] to understand that he’d accomplished these innumerable journeys, so many and so involved he could hardly remember them, in a radius of three or four feet.”

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This exploration of what it means for a life to end continued throughout Johnson’s career. Nelson’s death is echoed in another of Johnson’s death scene, that of Link from his story “Triumph Over the Grave” in his posthumously published collection The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. The elderly and dying Link wakes to find himself in the wrong room. He steps outside, towards a gulley leading into “…the roaring extinction into which ocean, earth, and sky had disappeared.” Instead of heading towards this “roaring extinction,” Link “banked left, circled around the corner of the house to balance in front of his bedroom’s back door—situated about sixteen feet diagonally across this bedroom from the sliding doors he’d walked out of. The journey had covered thirty or forty paces and lasted under ninety seconds.”

In these passages, Johnson portrays the psychic life of an individual as infinitely large and uncontainable, yet lets it rest, like nesting dolls, within the increasingly limited confines of a life, a home, a body. As Fairchild and Link are on the verge of death, they experience unclear boundaries between the perception of their vast psychic world and their limited physical world. Over and over again, Johnson develops narrative tension in exploring a character’s psychic freedoms within a confining reality. But Johnson’s fascination with this contrast is not limited to explorations of confinement; he is equally interested in the limits of psychic freedom, explicitly explored in the drug addled narratives of Jesus’ Son and the soul hopping discussions of Already Dead.

Already Dead is a novel that is likely to polarize readers. There are long metaphysical and Nietzschean rants. Neslon Fairchild has more lives than your average cat and few characters are living by the end of the novel. The violence is extravagant and upsetting. The depiction of humanity is bleak. But for those who have ever felt alien within their bodies, felt their soul beating away at their insides, certainly anyone who wants to delve into Johnson’s deepest ruminations, it is essential reading.

Johnson’s exploration of these themes throughout his body of work does not leave you with a unified theory. He did not write from a rigid platform but as one searching—a searching that imbued his work with vibrancy—pulling meaning where he could find it. For those less inclined to Already Dead’s aggressions, “Triumph Over the Grave” offers a softer exploration, turning its attention not towards an individual’s struggle to live, but towards death’s dissolution of relationships and the pain of lost companionship. 

Student Picks: Tallent and Peelle

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Danny Fisher-- I was sixteen, sitting at the kitchen with my aunt, when I turned to her and said, “Why doesn’t she just leave him?”

My Aunt set the needle and thread down that she had been using to sew button-eyes onto the sock doll she was making. She sighed, “Because, Danny, some people need to be victims.”

Her true meaning did not sink in that day, but in the years that followed I would learn to understand the mentality behind the victim/abuser relationship. In his novel, My Absolute Darling, Gabriel Tallent dissects that dynamic with a deft use of language, imagery and a nuanced approach to scene building and story-telling.  The reader is granted full admission into the horrific conditions that his main character, a young girl named Turtle, must survive to find the person she is meant to be and not the one her domineering father, Martin, has trained her to become, although Tallent takes the reader there with a subtlety that belies the drama unfolding, allowing the reader to behold the beauty of Turtle and Martin’s relationship as well as the tragedy.

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Margaret McNellis-- The Midnight Cool by Lydia Peelle is a delight for students and casual readers alike. Peelle’s treatment of the passage of time and varying points of view provide ample text to study for craft while providing a rich texture to the story. Pair with that universally understood themes at a time when the whole world is in the thick of war, and you get a gripping reading experience.

On the micro-level, Peelle’s writing is beautiful. Her use of metaphors and similes offer substantial opportunities for close readings because in the space of a few words, Peelle expertly conveys character motivations, fears, strengths and weaknesses.

I was particularly excited to add The Midnight Cool to my reading list this semester, as Lydia was my mentor last semester. I had the added benefit of seeing her lessons in action. If asked what I enjoyed most about The Midnight Cool, I’m not sure I could pick any one thing because I loved every aspect of this novel.

Student Picks: Ware and Sheffield

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Shawna-Lee Perrin-- I heard about this book nearly two years ago on NPR, and immediately wanted to read it. But two years fly by when one’s having fun in one’s MFA program, and I couldn’t fit it in amongst each semester’s reading lists and essays, let alone during the frenzy of my final semester. Finally, with my full thesis completed and mailed, it was time to wait. I got this book on a Wednesday evening and finished it less than 48 hours later.

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware begins with Nora, an introverted, reclusive writer living in a small flat in London, getting invited to a bachelorette/hen party weekend for her best friend from primary and secondary school. But she hasn’t seen the friend in about ten years and doesn’t understand why she’s been invited. She’s persuaded to go, and ends up in the middle of a mystery – a mystery she can’t remember as she recovers from a head wound in the hospital.

Ware weaves the tale in first person, alternating between Nora in the hospital and (via memory flashes as she pieces things together) an ominous glass house in the middle of a forest. I was hoping this book would last a little longer, but the characters and suspense propelled me through the 308 pages faster than I anticipated. It’s a thoughtful, brutal study in how to write a smart, well-crafted story with mystery and intrigue that keeps those pages turning.

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Dominique Heuermann-- “Tonight, I feel like my whole body is made out of memories. I’m a mix tape, a cassette that’s been rewound so many times you can hear the fingerprints smudged on the tape.”

Music is an essential part of the human experience. In my lifetime I have made countless mixed tapes and CDs, all labeled for specific moods and events, boyfriends, and road trips. Reading Sheffield’s ode to his wife through music,  Love is a Mixed Tape, is a heartbreaking trip, but one you will thoroughly enjoy.

Sheffield’s take on music memory and the way in which we all reach back in one way or another when confronted with a song from our past is masterfully done. By running through the playlists of the mixed tapes left behind by his late wife, we get glimpses of quiet moments, explosive memories, and the painful parts of letting go and moving on.

Sheffield’s profound musical wisdom and lyric application to life’s dilemmas and routine problems, such as his wondering why no one writes about the men that turn into husbands except for Carly Simon, or how Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” defined for him what it meant to have the responsibility of “the kind of love you can’t leave until you die.” I have always connected to music in this way, where the message outweighs the melodies. What instantly pulled me into Sheffield’s storyline was the fact that each chapter is a mixed tape. A time capsule of events centered around music and the choice to feel. Perhaps in my own memoirs I’ll discuss why I can’t stand listening to Alice in Chains, the reason ‘80s love song radio shows make me break out in a sweat, or why hearing Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman’s version of “Time to Say Goodbye” will always make me weep. Musical muscle memory, what a bitch.  

Student Picks: Burg, Mann, and Robbins

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Arun Chittur-- I train technical instructors and study teams large and small, so lately I’ve strayed from my regular selections of fiction and narrative nonfiction in favor of books that illuminate some part of the puzzle that is humanity. My wife recommended The Go-Giver; we were waiting to board a plane from the East to West Coast when I started reading the Foreword. I finished the powerful, yet concise story before we landed four hours later.

The Go-Giver is advertised as a parable, 150 pages written by two businessmen-turned-writers inspired to craft a story from decades spent observing the world. They rely on a diverse cast of characters but focus on two: Joe, a salesman struggling to meet his upcoming quarterly quota, and Pindar, an otherwise hard-to-describe “Old Man” who acts as mentor and coach to many in town. Desperate for counsel on how to meet his numbers, Joe meets with Pindar and is soon absorbed in a week-long lesson on the “Five Laws of Stratospheric Success.” And so ensues an adventure of sorts, a story that follows Joe’s rapid evolution from stereotypical salesman to someone who adds value to others’ lives.

It’s easy to get lost in the narrative, and to forget that it’s mainly fiction designed to make accessible one of life’s simplest but often overlooked principles. I’d recommend this book to anyone, not just for its ability to help provide focus and direction, but for the example it provides in the instructive power of story.

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Phil Lemos-- Good Friday is known for its executions. But Gwendolyn Mati, squeaky-voiced stockbroker and protagonist of the Tom Robbins novel Half-Asleep in Frog Pajamas, wishes she had already been sentenced to death when the stock market crashes the day before.

It’s bad enough Gwen is sweating out whether she’ll have any clients left when the market re-opens the following Monday. But she also has to spend the weekend searching the streets of Seattle for her missing 300-pound psychic and her slacker boyfriend’s missing pet monkey, while also avoiding a creepy stranger with mind-altering substances who wants to rock her world and take her to Africa with him.

Half-Asleep in Frog Pajamas is notable not only for Robbins’ signature irreverent humor and bold use of metaphor, but also for being written in second-person. The use of second-person in fiction is always a gamble, as it can backfire spectacularly. It works here, though, as we’re dropped into an immediate crisis - the stock market crash - and the subversion lends itself well to taking chances with characterization and style. Robbins is known more for other novels, but Half-Asleep is a hidden jewel any fan of comedy in fiction would enjoy.

 

Student Picks: Drown and Atwood

Derrick Craigie-- Merle Drown’s Lighting the World tells the story of Wade Rule, a trailer park kid with a toxic mother and disinterested father. He becomes fixated on the idea of escaping to Vermont to live with his wheelchair-bound uncle, the one family member to show him untempered kindness. 

A fictionalized account of real events that played out in a mid-1980s Concord, NH high school, Wade Rule is a well-intentioned kid that blends into the background. In scheming how he will make his way to Vermont, he plans to bring his assumed girlfriend, Maria, with him. Maria pities him, nothing else. With a pocketful of cash, an arranged ride, and his hunting shotgun, Wade goes into school to “rescue” Maria.  It doesn’t go as planned.

I’m from the North Country of New Hampshire. I knew kids just like Wade, and Drown’s sharp prose and world-weary voice captures the desperation of the kids that grow up in New Hampshire’s hidden poverty. My heart broke for Wade and Maria, even more so when I learned Wade’s story was lost in the news after Christa McAuliffe, a Concord High School teacher, was killed one month later in the Challenger tragedy.  

Drown resurrects Wade’s story with care and authenticity, and for the sake of all the lost kids, it should be experienced.   

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K. A. Hamilton-- Unbaby. Prayvaganza. Particicution. This is the ilk of words Margaret Atwood invented to describe the dystopic, patriarchal future of The Handmaid’s Tale.

As I read this book, I was keenly aware of its publication date of 1985. Although the story has recently re-entered the collective consciousness due to the Hulu mini-series, I remember seeing the hardcover on library shelves as a kid. The act of reading futurist fiction from the past is a little like discovering a message in a bottle, or long-lost graffiti on the wall. There’s a sense of shared space, but lost time; parallel lines that never quite intersect. But this particular world evokes a feeling that the not-too-distant future may have not yet been avoided, only delayed.

Although it is a speculative work, The Handmaid’s Tale reads like historical fiction that touches a nerve. Atwood achieves a level of uncanny realism in what is revealed or implied in the protagonist’s world. It’s almost real enough to reach out and touch, as the struggles of her characters hit so close to the ideological debates of today. Atwood reminds us of the timeless truth that “there is more than one kind of freedom ... freedom to and freedom from.” It is up to us to choose which one.

Student Picks: Beatty and Evans

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Phil Lemos-- The first-person narrator of Paul Beatty’s hilariously uncomfortable novel The Sellout, referred to only by his last name of “Me,” has made some awkward decisions.

Me is a black man who owns a slave. He’s the de facto caretaker of his hometown, an “agrarian ghetto” on the outskirts of Los Angeles by the name of Dickens. He runs a profitable business growing square watermelons and lots of weed. And he’s ridiculed by Foy Cheshire, leader of a group known as The Dum Dum Intellectuals. He calls Me a sellout, and Cheshire extols the virtues of his own watered-down edition of an American classic, titled “The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, the White Brother Huckleberry Finn, As They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit.” Things come to a head when Me tries to reintroduce segregation to Dickens, culminating in the Supreme Court case “Me vs. The United States of America.”

The Sellout is full of moments both cringe-worthy and laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes simultaneously. It’s a sharp satire of race relations in a supposedly post-racial America, and of how we try to simultaneously rewrite and bury the past.    

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Tara Ridell-- Danielle Evans’ collection of short stories, in a word, is sharp. The 8 parts that make up the book are saturated with humility and strength. Each story is devised of original characters that are connected by a precise design to trudge beyond their own mess.

In “Virgins,” Evans explores the nuance of sexuality through Erica, an already-jaded young girl. The author’s delicate prose cradles the deflated self-value of her character, illuminating an issue of confidence most young women contend with regarding their own bodies.

Evans’ writing is infused with compassion and benevolence, which is refreshing, as it is not always the sentiment put forth to characters of color. The piece “Snakes,” is a tale of a young girl of mixed race sent to live with her white grandmother while her parents are traveling. The battle that ensues over the child’s image via her natural hair is uncomfortable to read and counsels the reader to admit what is truly going on.

Whether writing about a veteran fixed in his own psychological purgatory (“Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go”), or a youth entrenched in tragedy (“King of a Vast Empire”), Evans’ fluid use of prose gives one breath to the many heartbeats in this work.

Student Picks: Moshfegh and Kuusisto

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Terri Alexander-- Ottessa Moshfegh creates characters that make her readers uncomfortable. In the short story collection Homesick for Another World, Moshfegh’s characters are flawed, broken, even cruel. The stories are littered with illicit drug use, anonymous sex, and a gamut of bodily functions. But Moshfegh pairs low with high; she takes low characters and applies the high of her literary prowess. She’s wickedly smart, and funny too.

The dramatic tension takes place primarily in characters’ minds. Take, for example, the protagonist in “Nothing Ever Happens Here;” a handsome teen leaves his emotionally abusive mother in rural Utah to become an actor in Los Angeles. He develops a close relationship with his elderly landlord. Moshfegh writes, “After our fourth dinner together, I found myself missing her as I lay on my bed, digesting the mound of schnitzel and boxed mashed potatoes and JELL-O she’d prepared herself.” Uncomfortable yet? How about this:  “She made me feel very special. I wasn’t attracted to her the way I’d been to the girls back in Gunnison, of course.” The reader roots for the protagonist to become aware of his blind spots. 

Moshfegh tends to go to those places with her characters that most writers avoid. The result is utterly original work that is both raw and refined. 

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Heather Lynn Horvath-- I first heard Stephen Kuusisto's poetic words when he read excerpts from various works at a writers conference this past February. To say I was hooked is an understatement. 

When I began reading Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening, I was once again drawn into a poetic space few books possess. A collection of essays, Eavesdropping is more than a simple memoir. Kuusisto's observations and his mastery of both poetry and prose offers the reader a glimpse of how he listens and processes sounds, so much so that I now find myself hearing deeper. He writes of certain music: "The sound has a thickness, like the fatness of certain flowers, and the sadness is redolent, you swear it has a fragrance."

Kuusisto writes of what it's like to be blind and lost in an airport, relying on the whims of generous strangers while feeling stares and hearing no-so-quiet whispers. He writes of traveling to Iceland and Venice to sight-see. The reader is given moments of rawness and vulnerability that offer ways in which to view everyday life differently. Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening is a book to savor and reread. 

Student Picks: Danielewski and Price

K.A. Hamilton-- If point of view is the frame of a story, House of Leaves is a kaleidoscopic masterpiece. There is no central hero, but a chorus of multiple candidates vying for the role in a dark and shifting world. The effect is a book that will haunt you well after you've put it down. 

At its core, House of Leaves blends the unlikely bedfellows of horror and romance, as a couple attempts to repair their marriage under increasingly terrifying circumstances. This is wrapped in layers of metafiction, footnotes, and secret codes.

Of course, no review of this book would be complete without mention of its layout. Central to the story is a terrible, endless labyrinth and an intangible monster that are reflected in the chaotic spread of words across the page. Danielewski engages not just the five senses, but a sense of time and space as well. House of Leaves is ergodic literature at its finest: genuine, heartbreaking, and infectious. In an age of ebooks, there are few novels I own a physical copy of, much less two. But I keep an extra around for lending, should anyone else want to lose themselves inside the House.

Jemiscoe Chambers-Black-- I have been looking for books that contained similar themes to my writing in hopes that it might improve my craft, and stumbled upon Richard Price’s Samaritan by accident.

In the vein of episodic police procedurals, Samaritan encompasses characters from all walks of life crammed together on the page, surrounding an amplified criminal case. The novel follows Ray Mitchel, an ex-English high school teacher, ex-cab driver, and ex-screenwriter, who has returned to the Dempsey, New Jersey projects where he grew up. But Ray returns as a wealthy man, and his altruism leads him to the hospital’s intensive care unit with a massive brain injury after being “tuned-up.” As his childhood friend, Detective Nerese “Tweetie” Ammons, tries to solve Ray’s case on the "who did it" and "why," past secrets are revealed.

What’s most intriguing about this novel is that the most painful moments, and the most insightful pieces of these characters’ pasts, are all done through dialogue. Samaritan has a magical quality, mixing poetic figurative language with an urban tongue that I got sucked into immediately.

Student Picks: Bachelder and Henderson

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Phil Lemos-- Aficionados of male ritual, 2 ½-star hotels and mangled legs will love Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special. It’s the story of 22 men who converge at a hotel annually to re-enact the infamous play from a 1980s Monday Night Football game in which Lawrence Taylor gruesomely shattered Joe Theismann’s leg on national television, ending his career. A lottery system, aided by a complex addendum of rules – you can’t be LT more than once in an eight-year span, the last person selected is Theismann, among others – determines which character portrays which player. 

Casting a virtual makeshift football team in such a short (213 pages) novel yields confusing results, both in mid-life crises and in name — there’s a Chad, a Charles and a Carl; a Randy and an Andy; a Dennis and a Derek.  

But the men, in a way, are one singular character, whose personal strife is their common bond outside of football. These men suffer from fully involved mid-life crises, whether it be failing careers, questioning of their own manhood, crumbling marriages, or a combination thereof, and they manifest themselves in the most bizarre and random situations, such as during the hotel’s continental breakfast and “stage fright” during trips to the bathroom stall.

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Shawna-Lee Perrin-- Details reveal a writer’s willingness to linger in a scene and highlight the parts with exceptional emotional weight. Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek is stuffed with multi-faceted characters and weighty topics, but it’s his attention to detail that makes certain scenes exceptionally haunting.

On Pete the narrator’s cabin: “...a front room with his bed, a leather chair, a kerosene lamp and an electric lantern, two shelves of books, and a bureau... a hatch in the floor led into a root cellar where he kept his milk, beer, and vegetables.” That beer is one of three things he keeps in the cellar is a subtle hint at Pete’s goals of living a simple, but not dour or monastic, life. 

After Pete’s father dies, the relics of his last day reveal Pete’s reluctant affection, despite the complicated, distant relationship they’d had: “An odor of leather, sawdust, and lilac... A half cup of coffee where he’d left it... an unpromising game of solitaire. His father had gotten up when he saw he wouldn’t win.”

I find myself reflecting on this book when I realize I’ve rushed through writing something; it’s a priceless study in slowing way down and really looking around.

Student Picks: Cusk and Gyasi

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Ashley Bales-- I started Outline, by Rachel Cusk while on a plane headed towards spring break destinations, which is appropriate given Cusk’s book opens with her headed to the airport. On her flight to Athens where she’s teaching at a writing workshop, Cusk’s narrator hears her neighbor’s life story. I too, I suppose, hear that story on my flight. Our respective flights land, we both head into unfamiliar apartments. She proceeds to collect stories from her fellow instructors, friends, writers, we hear from each of her students. These stories are told for the length of a conversation and then abandoned. As a reader, I learn more about these acquaintances than the narrator, or at least any details of her life. You get to know her through her questions and her empathy, but most importantly through her criticisms. The care given to each new character in Outline makes it a case study in the diversity of experience, in perception and characterization.  There is a delicacy to the prose that makes the narrator’s sharp criticism’s feel personal. They sting a bit more than expected, breaking expectations and challenging the reader to assess their assumptions. Outline is cultural critique with a thesis centered on the power of storytelling and assembled with a craftsmanship that shows you the stitching without revealing how it was made. When I got back to the states, I bought the sequel, Transit.

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Margaret McNellis-- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is a rare and beautiful novel. Not only does Gyasi work magic with the task of telling a cohesive story over the course of nine generations in just 300 pages, but she works magic with her language and application of themes. There were moments—throughout the book—when I was physically choked up for the suffering endured by the various characters. This brings up yet another success of Gyasi’s—her masterful creation of more than a dozen point-of-view characters without creating confusion for the reader.

How does she do this? Without spoiling any surprises, Gyasi writes a story from the point of view of each of these dynamic characters in moments of great personal change. She connects these experiences to those of each character’s ancestors in a way that reminds every reader of what it really means to have the events of history touch one’s life, sometimes in unforeseeable ways.

Student Picks: Russell, Lahiri

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Phil Lemos-- Karen Russell’s novel Swamplandia! is an imaginative tale about the Bigtree family’s attempts to keep the titular island theme park afloat after the death of the family matriarch/star alligator wrestler and the simultaneous opening of a rival park on the Florida mainland. 

Daughter Ava begins Swamplandia!, narrating the scene of the theme park in its heyday; it was not only the place to be in the Ten Thousand Islands chain off the coast of the Everglades, but in all of southwestern Florida. Meanwhile, oldest child Kiwi uncovers information that the theme park’s financial woes are worse than Chief Bigtree (the father) is letting on. Kiwi leaves Swamplandia! for the mainland, ostensibly for a scholarship opportunity. In reality, he’s leaving to work at rival World of Darkness. 

In the style of a bildungsroman, the novel alternates point of view between Ava and Kiwi. It also serves as a sort of national epic for Florida: the secluded island of Swamplandia! and the mainland’s Loomis County/World of Darkness respectively stand in for rural Old Florida and urban, cosmopolitan New Florida. With a great narrative voice and wild imagination, after reading Swamplandia! you’ll never see Florida, or alligator wrestling, the same way again.

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Shawna-Lee Perrin-- In Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, a thread of isolation runs throughout the nine short stories; Lahiri bookends this collection with two couples handling their unique forms of isolation differently.

In “A Temporary Matter,” Shoba and Shukumar are a married couple living nearly separate lives after a pregnancy that ended tragically. They didn’t heal as a couple, instead splintering and self-isolating. Lahiri deftly weaves the tale of a couple growing apart, and ultimately hurting each other deeply.

Conversely, in “The Third and Final Continent,” Lahiri follows the relationship between an Indian man (the narrator) and woman (Mala) in an arranged marriage; it’s strained, because the narrator has already established his own life in Boston, but had to marry and move Mala with him from India to the US. Initially, the marriage is strange and foreign to them; but instead of the rift Shoba and Shukumar experienced from their shared trauma, Mala and the narrator grow to love and comfort each other, make a happy life together, and raise a family.

All of Interpreter of Maladies’ characters are either in unfamiliar environs, or unfamiliar emotional territory; it reminds us that the importance of compassion cannot be overemphasized.

Student Picks: Everett, Zumas

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Phil Lemos-- Once upon a time, a woman named Portia Poitier bore a son, and not wanting him to be confused with an acting icon, she named him Not Sidney Poitier. So begins the Percival Everett novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier, as well as the life of the titular character. 

It’s not long before Not Sidney’s mother dies, and a secret is revealed—despite residing in lower-middle-class Los Angeles, she owned a fortune in stock from Turner Broadcasting Group, which draws interest from Ted Turner himself, who adopts Not Sidney. As the fictitious memoir evolves, Not Sidney finds himself not only passing for the famous actor’s doppelganger, but also finding himself in plights absurdly similar to situations Poitier’s characters faced in Guess Who’s Coming to DinnerIn the Heat of the Night and Lilies in the Field.

The novel’s in-joke is, inevitably, doomed to get tired fast – every time Not Sidney introduces himself to a new character, a dialogue as familiar as an Abbott & Costello routine erupts. That said, as a study in absurdist satire, sharp dialogue, and a critique of just how our own identities are informed, I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a worthy and hilarious read.

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Margaret McNellis-- Red Clocks by Leni Zumas has been compared to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale for its dystopian elements, particularly concerning reproductive rights. Red Clocks is especially chilling because it could be possible in the near future. The world Zumas builds is not so different from our own, with differences only in policy—except those differences have both broad and deep consequences. Zumas masterfully presents this world through the eyes of four main characters—five if you count the story within a story.

While the first fifty pages or so can be challenging, this book is worth sticking with, and at that point, it gets easier to connect with the many characters’ points-of-view as their lives begin to intersect in both comfortably predictable and surprising ways. With as many chilling moments as there are heartwarming moments, Zumas crafts a story that presents an America so different, and yet so similar, to our own contemporary nation.

Student Picks: Wasserman, Curtis

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K. A. Hamilton-- Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire is the story of teenagers struggling to reclaim their identities from the grips of small town life. The central character is at once a daughter, an outcast, and a rebel, and impossible to refer to by name without taking sides. She is “Hannah,” “Dex,” or “Hannah Dexter,” depending on who you ask, and the prime battleground on which Kurt Cobain-worshipping Lacey and popular Everygirl Nikki wage their intimate culture war.

To read Girls on Fire is to experience the cautionary tale firsthand. Wasserman presents raw teenage realities a la carte, free of the morality-story garnish so commonly heard on the news. With startlingly clear technique, she humanizes figures we’re so often warned not to empathize with. By keeping close, readers are allowed to let go of the “why” just long enough to remember the “why not,” and maybe even recall “how good it felt to burn.”

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Jemiscoe Chambers-Black-- We’ve all heard that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” and my literary mind feels we should turn to literature for this history. There is no better book for that than The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.

It follows the Watsons, who make their way from Flint, Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama because their son has been getting into trouble, and his parents think staying with his grandmother may be the change he needs. But 1963 is a turbulent time in the South, and Curtis weaves fiction with the historical event of the September 15th, 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. The event in this book is almost 55 years old, but racial tension still exists, and places that should feel sacred or safe, are instead places where children are met with fear, hate, and violence.

If you’re a parent, read this with your children. If you’re a teacher, share this with your students. If you’re neither, but a human, read it anyway. Start the conversation that Curtis sparked: one that asks how we can change and make sure that violence is not so easily accessible, especially when our children are the target.

Student Picks: Johnson, July

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Eddie Dzialo-- To read Denis Johnson is to embed yourself in someone else’s struggle. In Johnson’s final book, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, I couldn’t help but feeling that I was getting implanted into the author’s own acceptance of mortality and death. The stories in this collection focus on addicts, divorced men, convicts, men on their deathbeds; Johnson himself had been married three times, had been sober since the early eighties, and was in the later stages of his life.

In the title story, the protagonist says, “...I’ve lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to.” Sadly, this was also true for Johnson. Because some of the people in this book are writers or poets, it’s easy to imagine Johnson as being a character in these stories, reflecting on his past. And he does so with humor, honesty, and a command of language that makes this collection something surreal, something eternal. 

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Shawna-Lee Perrin-- When I think of Miranda July, I think of the kinds of films that I put on my watch list, and after months, decide I should watch it, start it, decide I’m not in the mood yet, and turn it off. Yet, still, there’s something magnetic about her.

So when I found out she was also a novelist, I was intrigued. The First Bad Man describes a neurotic, 43-year-old woman named Cheryl living on her own, pining after an older, self-obsessed man, and looking for a kindred spirit in the faces of strangers’ infants. Her life is thrown into chaos when her bosses’ twenty-something-year-old daughter moves in and displays total disregard, even hostility, for Cheryl and her strange little life, which unravels quickly.

July commits completely to her narrator’s voice, which follows some truly bizarre streams of consciousness that I found myself reading multiple times because I couldn’t believe the crazy things I just read. Cheryl follows her own internal logic, which only makes sense to her, and probably not many others. That July can pull readers along with this is a testament to her enviable skill as a writer. This is the Miranda July I signed up for.

Student Picks: Davis, Melville

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Margaret McNellis--Versailles by Kathryn Davis follows Marie Antoinette from her marriage to Louis XVI to the end of her life at the mercy of the revolutionaries. Davis delves into Antoinette’s spirit, exploring what it might have felt like to be in her shoes—not the Antoinette that lives on through the historically inaccurate phrase, “Let them eat cake,” but rather through the eyes of a bright young woman required to fit into a confining role. Simultaneously, Davis presents the recent history of the French Monarchy, from the Sun King (Louis XIV) to Louis XVI through a discussion on changes to the architecture, landscaping, and design of Versailles.

In addition to all of these fascinating and beautiful details, what struck me was the structure Davis employs. While most of the story is told through first-person point of view, narrated by the Queen herself, interludes are presented as scenes in a play, providing insight into other characters’ points of view about Antoinette, Louis XVI, and contemporary French politics.

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Ashley Bales--This year faculty member Lydia Peelle participated in a marathon reading of Moby Dick, that takes place annually at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. I first heard about this marathon reading from Lydia a year ago, so when I took my copy off the shelf to get me through the holidays, her description of these celebratory readings was in my head. As I sat reading, watching my husband string Christmas lights on the tree my father had decided to let us decorate that year, I tried reading a sentence or two aloud. The words rolled off my tongue--round words, old words--and I ran out of breath before the first period. After Christmas, my husband, my brother and I drove 13 hours north from San Jose to visit my mother in Seattle. A week later we drove back and instead of podcasts or burning through an audio book, I practiced my breath control and read Moby Dick. It was wonderful to feel the language in those long, rhythmic sentences, feel Melville change the cadence with the lowering boats, adjust to Queeaueg's dialect, attack the consonant "Moby Dick" in Ahab's drawl. I didn't get through it all on the drive, had to finish it silently on the flight back home to New York. In those final ferocious moments I wished I could have made myself breathless with Melvilles words.

Hear Lydia Peelle talk about the annual marathon in this interview with NPR. 

Student Picks: Stevens, Doe

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Melissa Alvarado Sierra--After graduating with an MFA in fiction, Nell Stevens is offered a grant to go anywhere in the world for three months to write her first novel. Instead of scouting for a lavish locale in places like Italy or France, she picks the bare, freezing, and gloomy landscape of Bleaker Island, population: 0. Bleaker House begins with a clear declaration of the hybridity of the work, which was completed in absolute remoteness in the Falkland Islands.

The story follows the author’s quest for what she calls “the life of a writer,” something she believes is rooted in isolation. Stevens weaves short stories, novel-in-progress excerpts and her experiences on the island to show the passion and madness involved in trying to write something of value. At the end of her stay, Stevens fails to produce a novel and instead finishes what is at once a travel book, a work of fiction and a memoir.

Her knack for observation, introspection, and persistence make Bleaker House a study on what makes someone a bonafide writer; Stevens concludes it’s the result of not only learning the craft, but also venturing into the unknown to understand the world and yourself a little more.

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Shawna Lee-Perrin--With Under the Big Black Sun, John Doe did something unusual in the world of creative nonfiction: he got his friends to help him with the narrative. The resulting effect is something like a novel-in-stories, or a quilt made of old concert t-shirts, each voice filling in some important part of the larger picture.

Doe wrote just over one-third of the book’s 24 chapters, giving it a nice thread of consistency. The rest are first-person accounts from different people in the same era and geography, when LA punk was getting up and going in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. While some are technically better writers than others, each perspective serves the book’s greater, Impressionistic impact.

We get stories from Doe and his muse and bandmate, Exene, in chapters 1 and 2, setting the framework. But the other chapters offer us a much richer, more nuanced view of the scene: the voices in this collection run the gamut from feminist, queer, Latino, working class, and yes, some angry white kids. What unites them all is a sense of finding their own unique, inimitable voices and a supportive community in a world they previously thought couldn’t care less about them.

Student Picks: Offill, Rushdie

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Jemiscoe Chambers-Black-- Have you ever had something remind you of your toddler years and make you not want to share? That’s what Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation did to me. It’s the book that I clutch to my chest and scream, “Mine.” However, it’s so beautifully written, I have to share.

Dept. of Speculation’s structure is written in short paragraphs of randomness that become gorgeous prose. The novel follows a writer who vows never to get married because she is too busy becoming an “Art Monster.” But she ends up falling in love, getting married, and eventually having a baby, and in her confliction and honesty, I’m moved. There are many delicious moments in this book that spill off the page when the inner thoughts of this career woman turned stay-at-home-mom pour out:

“What did you today, you’d say when you got home from work, and I’d try my best to craft an anecdote for you out of nothing.”

Eventually, her husband has an affair, and the reader is taken on a journey filled with love, family, sacrifice, and eventually forgiveness. So, while I’ve shared this gem, know that no one can borrow my copy. I really recommend this book, but get your own.

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Kirah Brouillette-- On a whim, I re-read Salman Rushdie’s infamous novel The Satanic Verses, the magically real story of two morally bankrupt Bollywood actors, Gibreel and Saladin, who die in a terrorist plot and are later reborn as an angel and Satan. With an embedded storyline around the prophet Mohammed that offended some Muslims enough that violent protests followed and the author himself was put under a fatwa by the Ayahtollah Komeni in 1989, it can be a tall order to finish.

What gets you by though, is the purity of Rushdie’s prose; the way he uses cadence and free punctuation to draw you into this foggily familiar world – a world where realism meets the magic of literary allusion, all bound by rising emotion shared between all characters, in both worlds at once.

Is there a Devil. After that the glass – baprebap! – began to shake ... slowslow at first, then faster-faster ...  until it jumped ... fell down on its side and ... into a thousand ... pieces, smashed. Believe, don’t believe ... but thenandthere I learned my lesson: don’t meddle, Mhatre, in what you do not comprehend.”

Student Picks: Doerr and Mitchell

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Arun Chittur-- I’m a longtime skeptic of historical fiction because of its reputation for overworked description, academic focus on timeline, and characters concerned more with events than their own lives. Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See corrected my long-time drought. 

Doerr introduces readers to Marie-Laure, a young, blind French girl, stranded after her father falls into Nazi captivity, and Werner, a German orphan who finds friendship and structure in Hitler’s army; the book relies on the unlikely thread between these two ostensible enemies.

Doerr’s structure invests readers in each character just long enough, making use of short, single scene-based chapters to bring us in personally. The book is then broken into multiple parts, each a different time period around or during World War II. The timeline slides backward and forward, leading one to believe the plot too difficult to follow and to assume the book will return to the shelf half-read. Alas, you’re left with more questions and no choice but to press on, hoping for answers.

The chapters show one moment, one place, one emotion. Then as soon as your heart subsumes the character’s, perspective changes, and you begin again, always longing to understand the world around you still cannot see.

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K. A. Hamilton-- "This book does not contain a misprint on page 39," Amazon warns, a foreshadowing of the form-bending journey to come. On its surface, Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a collection of found documents, torn apart at their middles and nestled within one another. Going deeper into the journals, films, and manuscripts, it’s a story of karma that follows a chorus of souls over six different lifetimes.

Belief in reincarnation is not a prerequisite for the audience, as the cyclical themes of subjugation and justice are universally human. In fact, the premise is never explicitly stated; it only exists as a mounting sense of connectedness between the people of each era. In this novel that spans period and genre, Mitchell demonstrates the subtle power of what’s left unsaid. There is an electric urgency to the message, and a call to action that is impossible to set aside when the book is done.

Student Picks: Bowden, Machado, Egan

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Zak Podmore-- As someone who's spent a decade actively seeking out Southwestern authors, I was surprised to find a new writer at the top of a list that rattles around in my sunbaked Utah brainpan this year, a list I like to call "The Best Desert Writers Ever." Even more surprising was that the author, Charles Bowden, was only new to me. He died in 2014 at the age of 69 after a prolific career. I've devoured six of his books so far, all of which deal in varying degrees with violence along the U.S.-Mexico border (think Cormac McCarthy turned journalist).

Easily my favorite is Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America, Bowden's amorphous, genre-defying 1995 masterpiece that slides between reportage, memoir, history, and natural history. In a grinding, lusty tour that takes us from the age of Red Cloud and Sitting Bull to 1960s Tijuana whorehouses, from Argentina’s U.S.-backed Dirty War to the five-day wedding bender of a Mexican drug lord, Bowden explores the concept of “soul-death” with moral outrage, trenchant wit, and plenty of dark humor. It’s a hell of a ride but Bowden is a more than capable guide, whether through skid-row nights or the vast Sonoran wilderness.

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K. A. Hamilton-- Released this October, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Machado could not have been more aptly-timed. If 2017 was the year of the “silence breakers,” Machado’s book is about the silence. Her collection of stories exposes the consequences of having a female body so delicately as to leave the experience wholly intact.

In addition to an expert storyteller, Machado is also a weaver of form. One piece is told in the format of an episode guide to Law & Order: SVU, while another instructs the reader on how to adapt the tale into an oral telling, complete with recommendations on voices to use and actions to be taken in front of the audience. At one point she advises: “give a paring knife to the listeners and ask them to cut the tender flap of skin between your index finger and thumb. Afterward, thank them.”

It’s difficult not to feel a visceral connection to the experiences of Machado’s characters. To read Her Body as an open-minded outsider is an act of empathy; from the inside, one of catharsis.

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Shawna-Lee Perrin-- I’ve been a little obsessed with Jennifer Egan’s writing this year. Most recently, I read her debut novel, The Invisible Circus, and the most accurate word I have for its effect on me is haunting.

The older sister, Faith, spent her short life chasing and creating magic, but ultimately ended her own life under mysterious circumstances. Her little sister Phoebe has spent the almost-decade between then and where the novel begins being cautious, sad, and socially isolated. Phoebe’s drive to understand her sister’s tragic end propels her to travel Europe solo, going where Faith went, seeking out her final journeys.

Egan depicts two very different experiences of coming-of-age: Faith’s insatiable lust for adventure and dramatic change couldn’t survive adulthood, while Phoebe’s extreme caution and nostalgia for her own past threatened to lock her away from the world forever. As Phoebe discovers truths about her sister and the people who loved her, the romanticism is yanked away; at first, this unfiltered view of her past is blinding, but as her vision adjusts, she can finally clearly see her way forward. Both paths toward adulthood are painful and dangerous, and Egan depicts both in vivid color.