Every year I save a list of the books I most want and then give that list to my husband as my Christmas wish list. I try to pick the things that are going to be sure wins and he’s kind enough to buy me hardbacks of books I’d otherwise wait years to read (no, it doesn’t take years for a hardback to come out in paperback, but once a book is no longer top of mind it might take me years to get back to it). This year was a rousing success, which is fantastic! I’ve had weeks of reading a wide variety of the best books. It was so successful, I’m now out of new books. But at least I have a huge batch of new recommendations to share with you. And the list is diverse enough that there’s something for everyone here.
Liliana’s Invincible Summer
Who wouldn’t want to counterbalance the sweetness of the Christmas season with a book about femicide in Mexico? Okay, so I get that isn’t a selling point for most people, but if you’re reading Bolaño, you’re probably reading about it anyway and Cristina Rivera Garza’s book is so tender and personal, I’d recommend this 1000 times more than 2666 (which I did not finish because 400 pages in I decided I’ve had enough literary vaginal and anal rape for a lifetime). While Liliana’s Invincible Summer is sometimes hard to read, it’s hard to read for the right reasons, because Liliana is so lovingly portrayed as a whole person whose victimhood is one thing that happened to her, not her entire purpose. Which makes sense because Liliana was Cristina’s sister and Rivera Garza is sharing with us the love of a sister’s gaze.
I’d previously read Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest and she was admiringly quoted at E.J. Koh’s book launch party for The Liberators with a perspective on trauma that deepened my thinking, so this book shot to the top of my list.
Liliana’s Invincible Summer is not at all what I expected. And I loved it. I hadn’t read the reviews too deeply because I wanted to encounter the book on my own, so I did not realize that Liliana had been murdered by someone who knew her, a type of femicide that’s so common that it too rarely makes the news. But what really floored me and made me fall in love with the book was the beginning where Rivera Garza is on a Kafkaesque trek through Mexico’s bureaucracy to even find the files related to her sister’s murder. It’s funny and it’s bleak, but most of all it’s exceedingly well rendered and sets up the rest of the book very well. Reading this book I got a sense of Liliana and also of the times she was growing up in. I learned more about intimate partner violence and I felt outrage. And I knew all the time that I was in the hands of a masterful storyteller.
It sounds like this book is heavy, and it is, but before you dismiss it consider all the heaviness we read about every day without thinking about the life that is present too. Liliana’s Invincible Summer is a book full of life.
Take What You Need
I’ve adored everything I’ve ever read that was written or translated by Idra Novey and we had some nice interactions on Twitter (when that was a thing) so I was excited to continue our “relationship” with Take What You Need, her latest book. The fact that she was dealing with mother/daughter relationships and the ways that our rural and urban selves have become so separated was a bonus.
The premise of Take What You Need is fresh: Leah was Jean’s stepdaughter for a time and once Jean dies, she hears from a man who was living with Jean about an inheritance that Jean’s left for Leah. As interesting as Leah’s relationship with Jean is (something we explore in alternating chapters as Leah travels to Jean’s after Jean’s death, while we see Jean in life), it was Jean I was most fascinated by. Perhaps because Leah felt more close to the author, she isn’t as fully explored. Jean, on the other hand, is a force that we get to know well in her contradictions and humanity as she watches the increasing poverty and isolation around her. It doesn’t hurt that Jean was a huge Louise Bourgeois fan (a sculptor I love with all my heart) or that my own first artistic forays were in sculpting metal.
I chose this as my first book to read in 2024 because I thought it would be healing. It was, and it was also cathartic. I don’t think it will spoil the ending to say that I wept at the care that can be taken with someone else’s work. Take the time to read this book and your brain will thank you.
What better way to follow up a book about a woman discovering her inner sculptor in a slowly rotting neighborhood than with a book about a Black woman trying to make her way on the Montana frontier with a terrible secret (horror-style)? I’m a huge fan of Victor LaValle, big enough to get me to read a western, and this book did not disappoint.
The ways Adelaide and the other settlers in the desolate landscape interacted with each other were carefully drawn, natural, and built a wonderful (and appropriate) sense of dread. I learned something new about the history of this vast nation and I was reminded, when reading this, of a visit we took to Bannack, Montana back when my husband and I were touring the west photographing ghost towns. I was also reminded that I cannot wait for the next season of The Changeling on AppleTV, feeling somewhat robbed about where the last season stopped and also hopeful that the next season will live up to my expectations. Narrated by Victor LaValle, the show made me realize how strong his authorial asides are in his books, the ways they shape the narrative with the power of his voice. This one is a classic:
“It would be nice to imagine Adelaide storming out of the store, climbing onto Obadiah, and galloping out of town, catching up with Bertie and Fiona and never looking back. But the human animal is a social animal; a lifetime of being treated like an outsider may make a person yearn to finally be let in.” – Victor LaValle, Lone Women
So wait on watching The Changeling if you haven’t already started it and read Lone Women in the interim. As with all LaValle books I’ve read, this one is a stark and important reminder that the monster is in all of us, a monster Jean tries to fight in Take What You Need and a monster Ariadne is slow to recognize when she meets him in Crete…
If the themes so far are in looking at people as people and trying to understand them across our differences, then Ariadne by Jennifer Saint is no exception. Technically this was a gift from my eight-year-old son (who loves Greek myths with his whole heart) but Imma guess he had a little help here from his dad. I’d read Elektra earlier in the year and was entranced by the deep exploration of this familiar material from a female viewpoint. I was less familiar with Ariadne’s story but that didn’t make me love this book any less. I got to see how little I knew about the Minotaur and then to catch glimpses of Daedalus and Icarus. Mostly, though, I really enjoyed learning more about Ariadne herself and her relationship with Dionysus. As this is my second of Saint’s books, I’m also realizing that what I like exploring is the archetypes we’ve been given and how they fit and don’t fit me and our modern world.
Ariadne is a very compelling book and I’m looking forward to reading Atalanta next.
I don’t know how I got from Ariadne to Chilean Poet, but a non sequitur was the perfect leap into this book. I’ve read Alejandro Zambra’s work before and was excited to inhabit his worldview and to visit Chile again, a country I hold deep in my heart from the year I lived there as a kid.
Chilean Poet starts in 1991, a few important years after we left, but the world was still familiar in the best of ways. The world in this book is also universal in some wonderfully human ways. It starts with first love and some furtive fumblings between young lovers on a couch. Zambra so fully inhabits those uniquely teenage moments that I started taking notes for my own book (but in a “hurry and get back because the writing is really good” kind of way). Alas, young love rarely lasts and Carla and Gonzalo are separated.
Until they aren’t. In a crazy second coming, they find each other again and Gonzalo becomes a stepdad to Vicente (I’m not spoiling much here, this happens very early in the book). What Zambra masterfully does here is jump from one life stage to another without any regard for formality or time we might otherwise experience passing. It’s a little jarring but being put directly in the stages of life where the story action is makes the book read fast, despite a strong tendency for authorial asides (more on that in a second). And he completes these jumps more than once, all equally well.
As I mentioned, Zambra takes us on these windy and lovely detours through linguistics that are entertaining and educational and made me love the book all the more. I don’t actually know whether to credit Zambra or the translator, Megan McDowell, here, but I learned more about Spanish, about English, and about how language shapes my worldview just by following the tangents. About authorial asides (and tangents): one of the things I’ve criticized Bolaño for before (and Hemingway and anyone else who thinks they are due my attention because I showed up to read their book) is using voice as a means to captivate an audience. But voice only. Now you’ve read me praise LaValle’s voice above and I’m into Zambra’s and I’ll sing the praises of Jonathan Lethem here soon, so it isn’t voice alone that irks me, it’s when I don’t feel the voice is earned. As I’m getting older I’m realizing this is my reaction to a patriarchal experience I sometimes have where people look at me—not unattractive, still youngish woman—and think “AUDIENCE.” I say people but it mostly happens with men (except this one older woman in Dublin outside a WC, but I think she was a witch). My lack of defense to this type of attack has gotten me in trouble before (just ask my husband about the time I got our whole family locked in an otherwise empty bookstore in Bellingham for an hour because I didn’t know how to say “excuse me, we have to leave” while one of these men droned on), but I’m learning. So when I say that an authorial aside is worth it or that someone’s voice is powerful and strong (in a good way), I mean it.
Well that was long. Now I’ve held you captive with my voice, sorry, turnabout is fair play? One last thing about this book I loved was that it’s full of poets. Not just people who write poetry (though lots of those) but also people who care about language and experience and taking a few minutes to see clearly the world around them. Which made reading this book feel like hanging out with the best of friends.
Speaking of women ruling the world (even if it’s a fantasy world), I fell so hard for Black Sun (the first book in this series) that I gave it as a Christmas gift to at least one person who reads this blog. It felt great after reading Chilean Poet to dig back into Latin America in a more fantastic way. Fevered Star is just as strong as Black Sun, a book that pulled no punches as the worlds in it collided. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed all three of the main characters (Serapio, Xiala, and Nara) in their own ways and it was exciting to follow their further adventures in this book. I did not know what was coming and I’d been worried that this second book would not live up to the first. My worries were completely unfounded. Now I just have to worry about how long it will be until the next one comes out. That’s all I’m going to say because I don’t want to spoil either of these gorgeous books for you, dear reader, you know who you are.
Brooklyn Crime Novel
I love Jonathan Lethem’s work so hard, especially his essays, and my first introduction to his work was Motherless Brooklyn, so I was excited to return to that place which is so clearly dear to his heart with Brooklyn Crime Novel. What I didn’t realize is how close this book would bring me to my own work as Lethem experiments with some things I’m working my way through, too: unnamed characters navigating a world that’s drawn heavily from the author’s childhood. It’s something I’ve been shy about at times as I’m writing my first draft and it’s been really good for me to see what does and does not engage an audience (at least the audience of me). For sheer reading pleasure, I think I’d choose Fortress of Solitude over this book, but Lethem’s voice remains strong, strong enough to carry what could be a very challenging novel if he wasn’t so engaging.
I love that Lethem’s embraced writing about place so specifically. I had been doing something similar with my book and it started to feel like I was writing introduction after introduction full of information that felt essential but also maybe too much and I didn’t know how to part with any of it. I don’t think I’ll ultimately make the same creative choices he has (I don’t have the voice to carry it or the career clout to get it past an editor), but I’m glad to read something that feels different (in a good way). I also think I’ll ground my characters with more details earlier than he has because I struggle between twenty minute bouts of reading to hold on to who is who. Was it Toni Morrison who said you write the books you need to read? In this case I’ll also be writing the book I can read at this stage of my distracted life.
I’m actually still reading this book at this writing, as the pattern of petty and not-so-petty crimes is a little too familiar at the moment and I can’t sit with the image of my kid getting a baseball mitt stolen, let alone stuffing his pockets with mugging money, so I can only read the book in spurts for that reason as well. Lethem the human turned out okay, though, and so will my son of a painter, I’m sure. Fingers crossed for life’s lessons not being too harsh along the way.
Don’t worry about me and my empty bookshelves yet. Not only do I have an extensive pile of things I was going to read someday (really, I will finish the complete poetry of Gabriela Mistral before I die, maybe?), but my birthday is this next week. I hope your year is full of great books and great friends! If you have any recommendations, please share them with me in the comments.