1. The Slave – Isaac Bashevis Singer
Singer’s The Slave tells the story of a Jewish man, Jacob, sold into slavery by the Cossacks and forced to live in a remote mountain village where he tries to maintain his traditions amid the idolaters and his own desire for Wanda the widowed daughter of his owner. Eventually the two fall in love only to have society, both Jewish and Gentile, spurn them.
It’s a terrific read, by turns beautiful and brutal, that attempts to explain why bad things happen to good people. Or maybe not even explain and just simply describe, so we can make up our own reasons why. When I retold the story to Mrs. Bad Habits, she gave me a look and said, “How could anyone possibly read something so sad?”
One thing I do love about Singer’s historical work is how well he fuses the natural and supernatural. The characters in The Slave live in a world of wonders, of ghosts, saints, and miracles, and that world view sings from almost every page.
2. Love is the Law – Nick Mamatas
Magick, murder, communism. If you liked the movie Brick but wished it was about a wise-cracking teenage girl with an orange mohawk, you’ll likely enjoy this. Surprisingly, unlike everyone I’ve ever known into Aleister Crowley, the main character doesn’t do heroin.
3. The Black Count – Tom Reiss
Pulitzer winning bio of Alexandre Dumas, father to the novelist, former slave, war hero, and revolutionary-era general – an overall fantastic read that not only focuses on the individual but the era he lived in. A must read for anyone who’s ever loved The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo.
4. Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth – Xiaolu Guo
A bildungsroman set in modern day Beijing. Fenfang, a young Chinese woman, leaves her home village for the big city where she finds work as a film extra. She’s snarky, disrespectful, and critical, but through bad relationships, bad roles, and the indifference of Beijing she stays true to herself. In the acknowledgements at the end Xiaolu Guo addresses the difficulties she had translating the work, not simply because the prose shifted languages, but she as a person shifted her stance on how she felt about Fenfang and her world. It might not be for everyone, but I recommend it.
5. My Antonia – Willa Cather
A book that’s both ugly and beautiful, My Antonia tells the story of an immigrant girl growing up in late 19th century Nebraska as seen through the eyes of her childhood friend. The beauty is there in Cather’s eye for detail whether natural or personal, but the ugliness goes along with it. There’s the intentional ugliness such as when a tramp farm worker commits suicide by throwing himself into a threshing machine, but there’s also the unintentional ugliness where Cather’s worldview rears its head like when she spends a page and a half describing how “hideous” an African American is.
I recommend it, but you’ll likely find a lot here to shake your fist at.
6. Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban
William and Neaera are two atomized and isolated individuals eking out their lives of quiet despair in 1970s London. William works in a bookstore. Neaera writes kids books. Each unbeknownst to the other starts having “turtle” thoughts after they visit the zoo and see the sea turtle enclosure. Soon their collaborating on a scheme to set the animals free. Fortunately for the reader it never becomes a romantic comedy, but something more life affirming.
It’s Russell Hoban. He could write derpderpderp for 200 pages and I would still like it.
7. Dirty Weekend – Helen Zahavi
Bella lives alone in a basement apartment, and her neighbor starts harassing her. One day she wakes up and decides she’s not going to take it anymore. What follows is a blood-splattered and violent weekend, where Bella transforms herself from victim to avenger. It’s a grim book, but compulsively readable that inverts the noir trope of the femme fatale, while reading like, as one tag on the book put it, Oscar Wilde writing Death Wish.
8. The Voyage of the Short Serpent – Bernard du Boucheron
An award-winning debut novel by a seventy-something year old author. Du Boucheron raises the bar for all of us.
In the Middle Ages a Catholic inquisitor is sent to the isolated Christian communities in Greenland where he finds a land ravaged by privation, cannibalism, and a host of other sins. One of those books where horrible people do horrible things and you know you can’t trust the first person narrator because they’re not telling you the true story. Yet despite all this the narrative remains compelling and the story unfolds at a rapid pace. Parts of it reminded me of McCarthy’s The Road, but even more of it reminded me of Stewart O’Nan’s Wisconsin Death Trip-inspired horror novel A Prayer For the Dying.
9. The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies – Robert Kirk, ed. Andrew Lang
An extremely short book written by a 17th century Scottish parson approaching the question of the second sight and fairies as both a believer and a naturalist with the express intention of refuting skeptics and atheists. In other words, it’s a loopy book written in a sanctimonious and turgid style, a fact not helped by having a Victorian “psychical” researcher as the book’s editor a century.