Spending a lot of required time on classic literature and literary theory, contemporary fiction and recent releases have become my literary haven. I turn to them when I need to cleanse my mind, when I need a break, and maybe most importantly of all, when I need to remind myself that reading is my favorite activity.
I’ve consequently learned to show far less restraint around the recent releases tables in bookshops. When, once upon a time, I used to pick out titles to keep in mind for when their American paperbacks would come out (an entire year later!), I now pick out the brand new international copies as soon as I see them. They’re big in format, have lovely covers, and are beautifully printed. (For someone who now hates tiny print, this makes all the difference.) I take them home, and instead of adding them to my TBR pile to be left alone for months, I read them within a matter of weeks or even days. Sourdough – a purchase from this month – was brought home, read, and filed away within thirty-six hours.
Being a person who’s gone through academic exhaustion in the past few years, this new attitude towards reading has been healing. It’s expensive and indulgent, but it’s allowed me to blissfully lose myself in the written word for hours at a time, without anguishing over what to productively do with what I’ve read, and it’s restored the enthusiasm and excitement I had towards new books prior to university.
What, then, are the books that have inspired this reparation?
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
Described by the author as “a novel about race, and class and privilege,” Little Fires Everywhere tells the story of two very different families living in Shaker Heights, Ohio in the 1990s. One family, the Richardsons, is as storybook perfect as the town they live in: their lives have been perfectly planned out – the father a lawyer, the mother a journalist, and the kids perfectly spaced out, with one in each year of high school. The other, the Warrens, consists of a single mother – a free-spirited artist – and her teenage daughter. The two families mingle and become dangerously close until a local battle around the custody of a Chinese-American baby puts them on opposing sides, at a devastating cost. A story about mothers and daughters, class, and race, Little Fires Everywhere is absorbing, intellectually provocative, and probably my favorite read of the past six months.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is one of those books I judged by its cover… and its title. I spotted it in a bookshop in Edinburgh early this summer and knew that I had to read it. Though it’s as quirky as the title may suggest, it is an emotional book. The story of a woman hovering around thirty who lives life from day to day, sticking to a very strict and mundane routine. Eleanor eats the same meal deal for lunch every day, the same Tesco’s pizza every Friday, and religiously goes through two bottles of vodka every weekend. She has no friends, no life outside of work, and yet she is convinced she is “completely fine.” The novel follows Eleanor’s transformation as a small incident forces her to mix up her routine and, ultimately, make friends as she unwinds the traumatic past she’s repressed. Though the novel is heavy in topic, it is never melodramatic and is, at its core, a refreshingly honest read.
Today Will Be Different, Maria Semple
I first came across Maria Semple in 2013, when I picked up Where’d You Go, Bernadette? in one memorable sitting as I flew over the Atlantic on my last trip back to the States. I absolutely loved it, and so I was scared to pick up Semple’s new novel when it came out last year. Early in November though, I desperately needed an easy but satisfying book to zoom through and decided the time had finally come to read Today Will Be Different. I was not disappointed in the novel for a second. Another story about the disruption of the mundane, the novel follows its protagonist, another Eleanor, through one day in Seattle. I flew through it almost as quickly as the first one. Charming, hilarious, and undeniably real, it will stay with me for as long as Where’d You Go, Bernadette? has – in fact, Today Will Be Different has one of the most memorable subplots I’ve come across in recent literature.
Sourdough, Robin Sloan
Literally a novel about bread, Robin Sloan’s Sourdough is as warm, comforting, and satisfying as a crunchy yet soft loaf. I started reading Sourdough as soon as I got home from the bookshop and I – again – flew through it. All I will say is that you need to read this book if you have a deep love for sourdough and are craving calm.
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
Yes, there are two novels by men on this list. I’m as surprised as you are. I resisted reading George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo for much of this year, not having wanted to read another novel about death. I followed a course on “The Talking Dead” my first year of grad school, and while it was fascinating, it saturated my palate for literature about the dead. Having found true refreshment in my recent reads though, I finally gave into Lincoln in the Bardo, and goodness am I glad I did! The story of Abraham Lincoln’s reaction to the death of his son, Willie, the novel is written in an innovative style, mixing lines from non-fiction sources on Abraham Lincoln into a cohesive story and adding chapters of dialogue from the dead, stuck in the bardo. Saunders weaves an incredibly intellectually invigorating story together, and though it may not be my favorite read of the year, it will not be one I forget anytime soon.
Autumn, Ali Smith
Another novel I resisted in 2016 but embraced in 2017! Though essentially about the months following Brexit, Ali Smith’s Autumn is the story of a decades-old friendship between a young woman and a hundred plus year old man in deep sleep. Written in Smith’s signature style, the novel flows as easily as a leaf falling to the ground, dipping in and out of the two central characters’ psyches. A beautifully human read, Autumn is seasonally calming and perfect for a November weekend. I’ve since moved on to Winter, and Smith’s seasonal quartet is already bound to be one of my favorite series.
What about you? What have you read any recent releases? What would you recommend?