Text by Kathryn Brooks, Sarah Robertson and Kimberly Webster
With the holidays behind us, we welcome 2020. Getting back to a normal routine allows us some breathing room. Why not plan some R & R time and settle in with one of these page-turners.
UNCANNY VALLEY: A MEMOIR by Anna Wiener.
At 25, Wiener left a low-paying publishing job and wound up in San Francisco, in the hyper-competitive, male-dominated, morally obtuse world of tech start-ups. Her splendid memoir is a vital reckoning with an industry awash in self-delusion. “Wiener’s storytelling mode is keen and dry, her sentences spare — perfectly suited to let a steady thrum of dread emerge,” writes New York Times critic Jennifer Szalai.
DON’T BELIEVE A WORD: The Surprising Truth About Language by David Shariatmadari.
This book, by a writer and editor at The Guardian, is a brisk and friendly introduction to linguistics, and a synthesis of the field’s recent discoveries. It “delves into the riddles of language: the opacities, ambushes, dead ends, sudden ecstasies,” New York Times critic Parul Sehgal writes, “and takes decisive aim at some well-chosen foes like Enemy Number One: The pedant or self-styled grammar snob.”
CATFISHING ON CATNET by Naomi Kritzer.
In this tender, funny, near-future Y.A. thriller, a 17-year-old finds solace in an online chat community called “Catnet” that’s run by cat-loving artificial intelligence. The New York Times science-fiction columnist, Amal El-Mohtar, calls it “a pure delight and a late addition to my top books of the year. This book is perfect. From the believable teenage voices to the shockingly effective thriller plot, it swings effortlessly from charming humor to visceral terror, grounding it all in beautiful friendships, budding romance and radical acceptance.”
A BOOKSHOP IN BERLIN: The Rediscovered Memoir of One Woman’s Harrowing Escape From The Nazis by Françoise Frenkel. Translated by Stephanie Smee.
A Jewish woman born in Poland describes a life devoted to French literature, her increasingly dangerous business selling French books in 1930s Germany and her desperate flight across occupied France. “The question of whether and how she will survive drives Frenkel’s account,” Lauren Elkin writes in her review. “But the misadventures of her personal belongings provide a subtle yet humanizing strand of the narrative, as does the documentary material provided at the end of the book.”
THE GIMMICKS by Chris McCormick.
McCormick’s novel begins in the early 1970s, nearly 60 years after the Armenian genocide conducted by the Ottoman Empire. The story follows two cousins in Soviet Armenia who consider themselves brothers: Ruben Petrosian, a promising backgammon player obsessed with politics, and Avo Gregoryan, a large, sweet teenager who eventually becomes a professional wrestler in the United States. “A thumbnail sketch inevitably makes this novel sound overcrowded and jumbled,” writes New York Times reviewer John Williams, “but McCormick keeps things admirably nimble, moving the stories forward while shuttling back and forth through time and across perspectives.”
THE HEAP by Sean Adams.
The Heap is about a pile of trash that used to be a tower. There is easy symbolism to be had in that contrast, but Adams is thankfully less interested in allegory than in cutting satire. What he’s really after, in this darkly comic narrative about the search for the collapse’s lone survivor, is an exploration of communal life. “The novel’s concern is not the instinct to form groups, but what people do within them,” Wil Medearis writes in his review. “The suggestion is of a lingering quality to human nature. Whether clustered in a vertical utopia or scavenging its collapse, people, for better or for worse, will always act like people.”
10 MINUTES 38 SECONDS IN THIS STRANGE WORLD by Elif Shafak.
At the opening of this atmospheric novel by Shafak, a prolific British-Turkish writer, the narrator, a prostitute, has been murdered and left in an Istanbul rubbish bin. In the minutes before her brain ceases to function, she recalls her eventful life in vivid, sensuous detail. “Who was she? Who’s killed her? Who will remember her after she’s gone? What will be the consequences of this brutality?,” critic Julia Phillips, writes. “These are the questions the book takes up, with plenty of room for grief, humor and love in between.”
A DREAM COME TRUE: The Collected Stories of Juan Carlos Onetti. Translated by Katherine Silver.
Admired by Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, Onetti, a Uruguayan who fled his country’s repressive regime in the 1970s, ushered Spanish-language fiction into the modern era. His surreal stories capture the anguish and thwarted dreams of people under dictatorship. “Listlessness is his great theme,” reviewer Ratik Asokan writes, “and it gives his stories their unusual shape. Rather than dramatize events, Onetti shows people recalling and reflecting on the nonevents of their lives, or, more usually, the lives of others, trying to give them meaning and glamour.”
THE CORNER THAT HELD THEM by Sylvia Townsend Warner.
The Black Death arrives, and the steeple collapses, but little else happens in this novel’s 14th-century English convent. With wit and deceptively spare prose, Warner immerses the reader in the ebb and flow of a small, fractious community. “Warner’s style is delicate and arch, consisting of a gentle skewering of religious ladies that recalls Barbara Pym,” writes New York Times reviewer, Josephine Livingstone. “Though she teeters on the edge of satire, she lands instead (like Pym or Evelyn Waugh) on poignancy. Beneath the surface of Warner’s humor is a quiet but powerful meditation on what it means to be mortal.”
THE BISHOP’S BEDROOM by Piero Chiara. Translated by Jill Foulston.
An existential Italian thriller that explores a dangerous game of deception in the years just after World War II. Set in and around Lake Maggiore, it depicts a deadly romantic triangulation. “The ‘solution’ of a wealthy woman’s murder isn’t the main issue,” critic Scott Bradfield writes in his review; “instead, Chiara explores the disaffected, essentially corrupt world that allows her murder to happen, a world in which complacent, middle-class men and women are returning to their prosperous lives after (to them) the superficial interruption of Mussolini. This is a strong, well-written and weirdly seductive little novel.”