"What if, instead of carrying/ a child, I am supposed to carry grief?" Ada Limon's fifth collection churns over this question like dirt in her garden. At once ecstatic and foreboding, these poems approach an idea of life-affirming death, if the reader can imagine such a thing. The tenacity of the natural world carries Limon, and in turn, she examines what it means to carry. Is it a loving, protective act? Is carrying inherently a burden? How do we carry on amidst violence and apathy, against the human instinct to give up? "Reader, I want to / say: Don't die. Even when silvery fish after fish/ comes back belly up, and the country plummets/ into a crepitating crater of hatred, isn't there still/ something singing?"
This is the story of young love between two boys in 90s Glasgow. This is also the story of how the world of 90s Glasgow was built to suppress the possibility of that love. Stuart paints a heart-wrenching portrait of Mungo Hamilton as he navigates queerness in a hyper-masculine society, devotion without reciprocity, prejudice without reason, and violence without respite. Mungo's story is a raw portrait of queer youth, but it is not a hopeless one. To steal a line from Stuart, Young Mungo was "like hot buttered toast when you're starving. It was that good."
MacFarlane's writing is at once an exciting, action-packed adventure travelogue and an ecstatic intertextual exploration of our human response to nonhuman questions on an inhuman scale: what is our relationship and responsibility to a world that will outlive us? That has never needed us? You'll find conversations and quotes from other eco-literature luminaries, such as Merlin Sheldrake and Robin Wall Kimmerer, and rhetorical movements in the style of Sebald's Rings of Saturn. I will return to this book as a site of perspective-blowing literary katabasis, as a humbling mirror, and most importantly, as an anthropocentric warning.
I don’t know if anyone asked for a literary Fleabag, but I’m so happy she exists. This unnamed, 20-something narrator, unreliable to the highest degree, has chosen to reinvent her disappointing life around the (dubious, hyper-masculine) core values of the classic Stevenson adventure novel, Treasure Island: Boldness! Resolution! Independence! Horn Blowing! She quits her job, steals an unhappy parrot, and goes on a book-length tear to destroy her life and interpersonal relationships under the guise of living a Great Life, with Great Acts. This book is satirical, frustrating, and at times uncomfortably relatable. Levine writes with sharp intelligence and a winking eye to take down myths of living the suburban dream, and the hubris that separates virtue and value. This is not a book for the faint of heart, but I recommend sifting through the burning rubble of the narrator’s life even just for the ending, which shook me to my core.
Winter encapsulates endings, stillness, and a kind of biting clarity. This is the landscape that Gluck traverses with strangers and sisters, fighting off an ever-pressing mortal loneliness: "Every hour or so, my friend turned to wave at me,/ or I believed she did, though/ the dark obscured her./ Still her presence sustained me: some of you will know what I mean." To read this collection of fifteen poems is to go away to some cold ending place and return differently, with a renewed ache for the purity of beginnings. In the midst of Gluck's poetic imagination and delicate philosophy is human connection, the warmth in this collection, the thing that binds endings and beginnings back to back like a single coin.
All that we cannot know of Jacob Frank's life, the imprecise nature of human endeavors, is made precise in the hands of Tokarczuk and her translator, Croft. I had to have a pen nearby to underline when reading The Books of Jacob, because there were entire transcendent paragraphs that made my heart stop. What makes this work of painstaking research a "masterpiece" is the way Tokarczuk is able to build a massive story structure, with millions of rooms of millions of bricks, and every brick is beautiful and philosophical and careful– masterpieces of their own. If you decide to undertake The Books of Jacob, you will be rewarded with unparalleled writing, visionary and philosophical storytelling, and a portal into the rise and fall of a "messiah" in a rapidly modernizing and terrifying world.
This tome dropped into the universe with commercial success in the mid-80s, but it made its way to my shelf by recommendation during 2020, when we (all) needed an escape from an increasingly claustrophobic reality. Palliser weaves an intricate and atmospheric tale of Victorian London swirling around our main character John, who begins as a middle-class child in Northern England, and through a series of coincidences and tragedies finds his world turned inside out by an epic and mysterious inheritance court case. Think Bleak House with a whiff of the postmodern, Dickens mimicking someone else mimicking Dickens. This is a novel to get lost in, to re-read, and to obsess over: the “correct reading” of the ending has been debated since it’s release, much to Palliser’s pleasure. In this way, this book resists categorization as simply a modern Victorian gothic-- the story has a skeptical eye towards the benevolence of “justice”, and will give the reader scant justice as well: Palliser will not tie up every loose end neatly, or will unravel previously tied ends with a wink. This was exactly the novel I needed in quarantine, and will be one I return to in the future for another stab at solving the mysteries. The story is wild, the writing is impeccable, and the entire experience is transporting to a world of high drama, colorful Dickensian characters, and spine-tingling synchronicity and pattern-making
Cloud Cuckoo Land is a dream-- a gleaming city in the clouds inhabited by birds, where there is no pain or hardship, where turtles carry stacks of honeycakes on their backs and wine runs down the streets. Aethon, a “dull-witted” shepherd, believes Cloud Cuckoo Land is a real place, and sets out on an epic, metamorphic, and fantastical journey to pass through it’s golden gates. This is the plot of the fictional Greek comedy that interweaves five impeccably created characters across hundreds of years: from the fall of Constantinople, to a library in Lakeport, Idaho, and finally to the deck of a spaceship set to populate a new planet after the anthropocentric fall of Earth. While each storyline, on its own, is heartbreaking and heroic in equal turns, what is striking about Doerr’s literary achievement is the way they are perfectly woven together, like the thinnest silver strings reaching across space and time. Those thin silver strings are stories: more than mortal, yet immensely delicate. Five characters stand on what feels like the brink of the end of the world, and Cloud Cuckoo Land brings them off the edge, allowing them to “slip the trap” of reality long enough to breathe. It is a miracle that anything survives this world at all: ancient stories, human beings, hope-- and yet, we do survive, we try again, we are willing as Aethon to become a downtrodden donkey, a fish in the belly of a whale, an owl soaring through the cosmos-- all to reach a kinder world than the one we have. This book is a love letter to the power of storytelling, to the responsibility we have to one another and to our earth, and to foolish, earnest hope-- the only kind.
As a lifelong fan of Kazuo Ishiguro, I had great expectations for his new book. Klara and the Sun does not disappoint. In typical Ishiguro fashion, we follow the internal life of a narrator with a unique relationship to the human experience. Klara is a particularly emotionally observant AF, a robot designed as a children’s companion. Through her eyes we experience a near-future world: one of fierce inequality, of oppressive loneliness, and of pressing mortality. Her god is the Sun, understood by Klara as some sort of loving and all-powerful being-- and who, in real life, is to say she is wrong? I believe a true novel should be held to a responsibility to ask big questions, and carefully, thoughtfully, handle their answers. Klara and the Sun poses many such big questions: what is the specific, effervescent thing that makes a soul? How do we give and receive love unselfishly, and how do we remain brave enough to love at all? Do not be fooled by the robot narrator: this novel is a celebration of the soul, of the reaching-for-it, and of the small gorgeousnesses of being alive and human.
This book needs no introduction to popular conversation: a queer (re)telling of the Achilles myth was timely and needed when it arrived on scene in 2012. Miller’s handling of the subject matter is deft and nuanced, pairing a level of rare, compulsive readability with expert Classics scholarship and a deep empathy for the human experience. I am especially struck by Miller’s pure and gentle evocation of young queer love, something notoriously slippery and emotionally faceted. Enter the world of Miller’s Patrocles to ask, what is it to live with one eye towards legend, to interact with myth as a verb? This book is for anyone looking for an adventure, a love story, a sob-inducing ending, or just really great storytelling.
To approach storytelling with a feminist lens is to question the mode of telling: who has the power of voice and why, and how does that power reveal or obfuscate something we call truth? These questions trickle through Shapland’s book in both form and content, creating a mirage-like image of Carson and Shapland, superimposed upon one another like queer tissue paper. While reading My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, I read sections of it’s non-linear text to anyone who would listen. The scope is larger than an examination of a singular figure, and often reaches to the global concerns of the ambivalent morality surrounding biography and ownership, the untidy history of lesbian desire, and the impossible quest to Know oneself. Through examinations and re-examinations of writings, recordings, possessions, and place, this Maggie Nelson-esque work of nonfiction is a dizzying and satisfying rumination on what it means to exist as a writer, as a woman, and as a lesbian, through time and memory.