13 Of March 2015's Best Books To Spring Clean Your Bookshelves And Make Room For
As I write this, the temperature has apparently plummeted to 17 degrees (wouldn’t know, haven’t left my apartment in 24 hours), the sky is a decidedly non-colored color, and I cannot remember the last time I shaved my legs. Can you hear me, Gaia? I’m ready for those buttery yellow crocuses. Maybe just a hint of sun? Or an afternoon that breaks the 25-degree mark?
During times like these, the remaining endurance-testing days of a global-warmed winter, that I need to remind myself that the seasons do change. And there’s no better way to gently (OK, firmly) coax the coming of a sunnier season than welcoming a freshly-hatched batch of new books into your life and abode.
Luckily, this month sees a slew of crazy-talented new blood to energize that pasty little life of yours: Kristin Valdez Quade’s gorgeous collection Night at the Fiestas sheds red-hot light on the culture and characters of New Mexico; Keija Parssinen’s haunting second novel, The Unraveling of Mercy Louis, transports us to a Bible-thumping, oil-worshipping Gulf town that endures an unspeakable tragedy; and young Irish writer Colin Barrett’s subversive short story collection, Young Skins, may very well become my favorite book of 2015. Oh, and Kazuo Ishiguro has a new book, too: in The Buried Giant, the acclaimed author takes us back to Arthurian-era England, reimagining the mythological land in which ogres, witches, and Sir Gawain himself roam free in a way only Ishiguro can. (Meaning, it's definitely not what you'd expect.)
By the time you tear through your chosen roster of these brilliant March releases (or maybe just Hanya Yanagihara's mammoth second novel, since it's all you'll have time for), you just might hear some birdies chirping.
Young Skins by Colin Barrett (Grove Press; Mar 3)
“Write what you know”: for writers, it’s a truth oft-repeated but universally acknowledged. Thomas Hardy knew this when rendering his beloved Wessex, the fictional name for a county so like those of southwest England you can feel the sodden Somerset grass squish beneath Jude’s feet. Colin Barrett, whose debut collection Young Skins heralds a brilliant new age for Irish literature, knows this, too, and writes accordingly in his raw depictions of Glanbeigh, Ireland. Based on his home county Mayo, Barrett imbues this fictional town with all the little failures, all the deceptively complex personalities, that populate hundreds of post-boom Irish towns. Barrett’s meticulously crafted narratives brim with plucky dialectical poetry so rhythmic it’ll stick in your head like a three-chord punk song. These six stories and one novella brim also with the particular pleasure of a young writer operating with confidence and a wide-open heart. Rightly so: like James Joyce’s Dubliners or Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha before him, Barrett proves that writing what you know can yield subversive and innovative results.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf; Mar 3)
Kazuo Ishiguro is, as the Independent avowed, “a master storyteller, in a class of his own making.” In The Buried Giant, Ishiguro’s hotly anticipated seventh novel, the master casts his powers over Anglo-Saxon-era Britain, a landscape legendary for its mythological fecundity. But this is not the florid, fanciful, or even charming Romantic tale you’d expect from this setting (despite the fact that Sir Gawain makes an appearance). Rather, in true Ishiguro fashion, the Anglo-Japanese writer espouses an eerily deadpan tone, narrating the tale of Axl and Beatrice — an elderly couple who set out to find their long-lost son in the midst of a mysterious, memory-sapping fog that’s settled over the country — with the ominously omniscient quality that fans of Never Let Me Go will recognize. Ishiguro may be a master of his craft, but, more than that, he’s a master of quiet subversion. In genre, characterization, and structure, be aware that The Buried Giant is not an easy book, and what you see is rarely, if ever, what you get: the writer expects you to dig deeper for the truth.
The Tusk That Did The Damage by Tania James (Knopf; Mar 10)
The title of Tania James’ second novel was inspired by a myth, told in the middle of the novel, concerning the greed-driven mania that ivory’s majestic and lucrative beauty tends to inspire in human beings. It’s a mania that drives otherwise innocuous people — like the young Manu, whose story occupies one-third of James’ multi-perspective story — to become hated poachers. It’s a mania that drives otherwise peaceful animals — like Gravedigger, the orphaned elephant whom James imbues with stunning emotion — to embark on desperate killing sprees. And it’s a phenomenon that drives artists and filmmakers, like the young Americans Emma and Teddy, to South India, a place where Western economic ideals struggle against nature’s awesome power. In The Tusk That Did the Damage, James grounds a moral investigation in fallible human (and animal) emotionality: her prose is simple and beautiful, and her characters, both human and pachyderm, are lovingly rendered. But, mostly, you’ll come away with a dreadfully heightened awareness of our careless destruction of the natural world.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday; Mar 10)
A Little Life is exhausting. That's an apt description for any book clocking in at 700-plus pages, but in Yanagihara’s second novel, an examination of the friendship between four men from their 20s into middle age, is also exhaustive. Yanagihara is a huge talent, but her genius is best portrayed in her painstaking but seemingly (ironically) effortless probing of these remarkable individual personalities, the little things that breathe stunning life into these fictional characters. And despite the frankly horrifying tragedy that reveals itself in the middle of the novel, and the relentless beats of darkness that follow suit, A Little Life is ultimately an ode to friendship’s redeeming strength. That Yanagihara herself is an Asian woman makes her astonishingly real portraits of these four ethnically diverse men its own accomplishment. But that she handles each of her characters — the artist JB; the architect Malcolm; the actor Willem; and the lawyer Jude, who turns out to be the tragic heart of the story — with such empathy and precision makes this novel a triumph, an epic for a modern age.
The Unraveling of Mercy Louis by Keija Parssinen (Harper; Mar 10)
The Unraveling of Mercy Louis is a rarified find. It’s a deeply unsettling meditation on life in the superstition-soaked, wet-heat-drenched Gulf town of Port Sabine, Texas, but what could veer into gloopy Gothicism results instead in a relevant — but thrilling — story of the anxieties and temptations that plague small-town American adolescents. Categorizing Keija Parssinen’s second novel is nearly impossible, and doing so would belittle the carefully constructed complexities Parssinen allots to these God-fearing Evangelists and lust-driven golden girls. But it’s safe to say that this is a thoroughly American story, evocative of a cultural pocket in which sports and church, sex and greed, and tragedy and redemption hold equal weight.
B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman (Simon & Schuster; Mar 10)
The relationship between writer and devoted reader can be a fraught one: it’s a consuming, lustful one; or, it’s a paranoid, resentful one; or, it’s a mutually “intimate” one, “intended to generate physiological reaction.” J.C. Hallman, whose highly educated pedigree includes writing, teaching, and literary-criticizing, explores that complicated bond, “from the moment of its conception,” with a poetic neuroticism. Hallman’s own complicated bond, his own literary battleground-cum-confessional, is against/with the writer Nicholson Baker, whose book U and I excavated his own relationship with John Updike. Don’t shy away from what seems to be clinical lit-crit: B & Me is actually delightful, deceptively light-hearted, and, for all those over-analytical readers out there, totally relatable.
Hammer Head by Nina McLaughlin (Norton; March 16)
Nina MacLaughlin has hit the nail on the head with her memoir about her journey from journalist to carpenter. Or, as she puts it, carpentrix. MacLaughlin is the author of the stunning Tumblr Carpentrix, where for years she has been beautifully documenting the days spent working with her hands as one of the sole women in the construction industry. Hammer Head tells her whole story in the same stunning prose, which you may very well read in one sitting. Sick of the emptiness of staring into a computer screen and clicking away at her Boston newspaper job, MacLauglin quit and applied on a whim to become a carpenter's assistant to a woman named Mary — and got the position. It transformed everything she knew about work, and about herself. The memoir has power tools, life crises, and even sex. What more could you want?
If you're in New York, stop by WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn on March 25 at 7 p.m., where Hammer Head author Nina MacLaughlin will be in conversation with Bustle's senior culture editor Meredith Turits.
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum (Random House; Mar 17)
Publishers Weekly likened Hausfrau’s upper-middle-class, utterly unheroic heroine Anna Benz to Flaubert’s sheltered Madame Bovary, and it’s a likeness that sticks: like Emma Bovary, Anna, an American married to a Swiss banker who has lived in the Alpine village of Dietlikon for nine years, renders her cushy, urgency-free life an existential prison. But unlike the petulant Bovary, Anna’s maddening forays into adultery stem from fruitless forays into introspection — both self-inflicted and urged by her Jungian shrink — rather than sheer greed. Essbaum’s pedigree as an acclaimed erotic poet is in full force here, and her gift for imbuing fiery sexuality with elegant lyricism translates beautifully into prose. Anna is a Romantic tragic heroine translated into a clinical modern age: whether you empathize with her or find her minor crises a narcissistic illusion, Essbaum’s rendering of this complex character is something to be admired.
Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade (Norton; Mar. 23)
In 2014, debut author Kirstin Valdez Quade was awarded a spot on the National Book Foundation’s coveted “5 Under 35” list, an accolade reserved for those emerging writers who challenge, innovate, and energize the writing world. But Night at the Fiestas, Quade’s highly accomplished short story collection, suggests that, though undoubtedly original, Quade is essentially a traditionalist. Each of these New Mexico-set stories are complex and exacting, admirably controlled but brimming with pathos; and each hearkens to masters of the form, from Flannery O’Connor’s suspended Gothicism to Annie Proulx’s devout dedication to evoking a sense of place. And it’s New Mexico, that heat-ridden corner of our country, that breaks out as the star of the collection: you’ll be haunted by Quade's shimmering images of burning zozobras and hot red sands long after you finish the last story.
A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell (Harper; Mar. 24)
Three sisters — Lady, Vee, and Delph Alter — gather in their family apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the last bastion of old New York Jews, in the waning days of the 20th century. This “triumvirate of feminists,” this “partnerless, childless, even petless sorority” congregates here to carry out the Alter family curse that is their birthright: they’re all going to commit suicide, here, together. Suicide is in their blood, less a curse than a genetic inevitability. But first, the three sisters, forming a darkly humorous Greek chorus, write their suicide note — the triumphant, tragic, and memorable story that is A Reunion of Ghosts. From their German-born great-grandfather Lenz (death by morphine) to their mother Dahlie (death by drowning), the sisters’ story spans generations, the Atlantic, and all manner of misfortune. But what could be a story of pure devastation is, in Mitchell’s empathetic hands, a wry and tender examination of family ties.
Speed Dreaming: Stories by Nicole Haroutunian (little a; Mar 24)
I understand why short story collections sometimes get a bad rap: they’re packed too tightly with veiled metaphor and dense symbolism; they’re too slow-moving to capture our attention, or else they’re over too quickly for us to devote our commitment. Lucky for the non-believers, debut writer Nicole Haroutunian’s Speed Dreaming is the total opposite. Which is not to say that each of these twelve stories about young women aren’t insightful; layered; or emotionally charged. But Haroutunian’s breezy prose, and her characters’ humor and relatability — even when dealing with a recently-paralyzed boyfriend, a rocky new marriage, or a father’s recent death — makes reading this captivating collection a true joy.
Unabrow: Misadventures of a Late Bloomer by Una LaMarche (Plume; Mar 31)
I knew that Una LaMarche had written one of the best, most affecting star-crossed YA romances I’ve read (see: Like No Other), but I had no idea LaMarche was also a very funny person. Like, Bossypants-comparison-worthy funny. Blessed from birth with a virile hair-growth pattern and a hefty dose of smart and silly humor to match, in Unabrow LaMarche recounts the defining awkward moments of her youth (see: “The Great Tampon Victory,” ca. 1994) with charming candor. Though she’s since learned to wield a tweezer with military precision, LaMarche’s late-bloomership has stuck her with a glorious, self-deprecating wit — proving, once again, that the weirdos and the nerds eventually take over the world.
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids by Meghan Daum (Picador; Mar 31)
In a society in which acceptance is becoming progressively more, well, accepted, it’s surprising that some life choices still carry their historical and cultural stigmas. Choosing not be a parent is one of them. In this thoughtful essay collection, edited by Meghan Daum, sixteen “electively childless” writers share their reasons for deciding not to procreate. While each of their eloquent and legitimate reasons differ — Courtney Hodell chooses to dedicate her love and care to her beloved niece; Sigrid Nunez grew up in fear of her mother, which lead to the question: “How could a person who lived like that ever make a child feel safe?” — none of these 13 women and 3 men are either selfish, shallow, or self-absorbed.