April 2014's Must-Reads: 6 Books You Don't Want to Miss

I know, I know: Your stack of must-reads is already a daunting tower piled high beside your bed, higher even than that heap of must-wash laundry, threatening to topple over like a Jenga tower. We know the feeling, and that's why we've picked a list of the must-must reads that April has to offer: the books we truly couldn’t wait to get our hands on. From a new genre-defying Lydia Davis story collection to a sophomore essay collection in which Leslie Jamison that explores the depths of human empathy, it’s going to be an exciting month.

1. The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison (Graywolf; April 1)

Leslie Jamison’s side job title is “medical actor.” While “trying not be broke” as an aspiring writer, she “plays sick” for $13.50 an hour. Equipped with a false name, a faux medical history, a tentative script, and a detailed character backstory, her task is to act out symptoms for medial students. Later, she'll be asked to evaluate the students’ performance, notably their level of displayed empathy. Using this real life experience as a jumping off point, Jamison launches into a playfully curious and profoundly candid exploration of human empathy and suffering in her newest work The Empathy Exams . Moving from chronic illness and phantom diseases to poverty tourism and incarceration, this collection of essays approaches difficult questions with an electric energy and reveals deep insights into the human condition.

2. Frog Music by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown; April 1)

Penniless vagrants, pompous millionaires, seedy men, and vengeful women color the pages of this new cinematic literary thriller set along the grungy outskirts of 1870s San Francisco. In her latest work, Emma Donoghue, internationally best-selling author of Room, takes as her muse the true unsolved murder of Jenny Bonnet, a cross-dressing frog catcher shot dead through a railroad saloon window one summer night. Bringing that same masterful storytelling that captivated us in Room, Donoghue fills in the missing pieces surrounding the haunting murder mystery, crafting a vivid narrative equipped with love, lust, and violence, questionable morals, period folk tunes, an eclectic band of characters, and a quest for justice.

3. Love and Treasue by Ayelet Waldman (Knopf; April 1)

If the riveting history around which Ayelet Waldman's new novel is weaved doesn’t draw you in, the characters that infuse it certainly will. Vividly crafted and full of intriguing complexity, Waldam’s characters — a seedy art historian, a clan of entrapped circus dwarfs, a beautiful Hungarian Holocaust survivor, and a vivacious young American army lieutenant among them — breathe life into a story of art, war, stolen treasures, forgotten crimes and star-crossed love, a story that sets off during WWII along the Hungarian Gold Train and spans across decades, cultures, and generations. Skillfully crafted and told from multiple perspectives within a narrative that telescopes through time, Love and Treasure tells a captivating story about treasure lost and found and calls us to reevaluate what it is that we treasure most.

4. Off Course by Michelle Huneve (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux; April 1)

With Off Course, Michelle Huneven delivers an enthralling tale of impulsive decisions, impossible love, and catastrophic consequences. In an attempt to find a quiet place to bang out her dissertation, young economics Ph.D. candidate Cressida Hartley escapes to her parents' cabin in the California Sierras, a family retreat that she once detested as a child. But she's no longer a child, and something about the quaint mountain community seduces her, especially once she begins a love affair with a 40-year-old divorced lodger and later a charming carpenter. Disenchanted by her schoolwork, she soon begins to lose herself within the beautiful wilderness and suddenly her aspirational path is thrown off course.

5. Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead (Random House; April 8)

With her newest novel, Maggie Shipstead takes readers on a dazzling tour inside the alluring world of professional ballet, a world that is simultaneously exquisite and dangerously cruel. It’s an intoxicating world of art, beauty, sweat, romance, jealousy, and restraint — one Joan thought she had left behind, escaped even, until she realizes that her son Harry is a ballet prodigy. She's sucked in once again, forcing her to face former lovers, fallen dreams, and delicate secrets.

6. Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux; April 8)

The publication of a new short story collection by this renowned writer is an epic literary event in itself. Infamous for her love of defying the laws of storytelling, Davis never fails to entertain, even with the most seemingly mundane. In Can't and Won't, a hodgepode of short stories, poems, vignettes, letters, musings, and observations that span the spectrum of writing form, Davis remains loyal to her signature category-transcendence and brings intrigue to the humdrum of our daily routines. From a fiery letter addressed to a pea manufacturer complaining about the color of their peas to a five-sentence story about being awaken by the morning trash collection, Davis continues to surprise, amuse, provoke, and happily confuse the reader with every turn of the page.

So challenge the laws of gravity, stack up your books up a little higher, and then get to work — you have a lot of reading to do.