The Lucy Barton series, by Elizabeth Strout (My Name is Lucy Barton, Anything is Possible, and Oh William!):
Move over, Marvel! In lieu of superheroes, this fictional universe centers on small-town girl turned big-city author Lucy Barton and the cast of supporting characters who intersect with her story. Be forewarned: these are not plot-driven page-turners (the Marvel analogy only goes so far). Instead, they’re the epitome of “quiet” books - brilliant character studies that depict ordinary life and ordinary people, in the vein of Marilynne Robinson.
The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois, by Honore Fanonne Jeffers
This doorstopper takes a little time to warm up, but the payoff is worth the investment. Jeffers follows the women (mostly) of a Black (mostly) family in the U.S. from slavery through to the modern era. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a sucker for the multigenerational saga, so that would’ve been enough for me. But Love Songs also does interesting things with sequence and narrative, interspersing the main character’s story with a chorus of voices describing her maternal ancestors’ experiences alongside hers. (Yes, you really do need the family tree in the front - if you hate keeping track of multiple characters, beware.)
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders
I did not expect to like this book, which is pitched as a master class on the Russian short story. I kind of hate reading short stories (not enough to sink your teeth into), and I don’t aspire to write them (won’t rule out a novel in my retirement years, though). But Saunders is one of those infuriating writers who turns everything they touch into transcendent prose. If you’re at all interested in the craft of writing, genre aside, you’ll find a necklace worth of pearls in this book. At the very least, you’ll spend some time in Saunders’ generous, warm, uplifting-but-never-saccharine company - and that alone is worth the price of admission.
Our Country Friends, by Gary Shteyngart – a Covid novel that doesn’t quite stick the landing but is excellent most of the way through
Four Thousand Weeks, by Oliver Burkeman – an anti-productivity productivity book that made me feel personally attacked (in a good way)
Malibu Rising, by Taylor Jenkins Reid – propulsive plot, juicy gossip; bring it along on your spring break beach trip
Empire of Pain, by Patrick Raddan Keefe – got a lot of buzz when it came out, but if you missed this expose of the Sackler family (of OxyContin infamy), get on it
Bonus! How the Other Half Eats, by Priya Fielding-Singh
While the list above is comprised of fun books only (i.e., books I read strictly for pleasure, not work), I couldn’t resist shouting out one in-between book. I originally picked Fielding-Singh’s work up as a case study: I wanted to see how she managed to turn a sociology dissertation into a popular book. But it’s also just a good book in its own right! If you’re curious about what sociology is, want to introduce a precocious young adult to social science, or are interested in learning how mothers of very different backgrounds and means feed their families, give it a go.
I’ll be back in your inbox next week with more conventional programming! In the meantime, comment or send me a message if you a) have read any of these books and have thoughts or b) want to recommend a book you think I’d like – I have a vacation coming up and need some literary fodder.
And if I’m being totally honest, I was traveling most of last week and had neither the time nor the brain space to write up something more substantive…