Alex P: Naja Marie Aidt’s remarkable collection of short stories is concerned with relationships: Relationships between lovers, of course, but also between siblings, parents and children, friends, complete strangers, nature and mankind. Aidt is most interested in how these relationships implode, diving into the pain and confusion of connection with a brutal realism that evolves into something uncanny and bizarre. I’ve never read a story—let alone 15—that so perfectly captures the aesthetic experience of a panic attack: a shadow gradually darkening the banal, those subtle changes that build and charge until an innocuous situation becomes a horrific one. Though none of the stories share a plot or character, they’re inextricably connected, each dark and twisted tale in cadence with the one that preceded it and the one that follows. Spare, dark, and beautiful, I can’t say that Baboon is a pleasant read—but it is a powerful one.
Justin: Howard Jacobson’s Booker Prize-winning novel is equal parts Philip Roth and Jane Austen. It’s a novel of manners, where the manners are boisterous, pugnacious, and wonderfully awful. The story follows Julian Treslove, a nondescript nebbish who habitually falls in love with frail, doomed women (all of whose names begin with J), and his relationship with two close friends: one young, one old, both Jewish, both recently widowed. ”Finkler” is Treslove’s private word for Jews, borrowed from the last name of his friend and occasional rival. Thus, ”The Finkler Question” is actually The Jewish Question, and anti-Semitism and Israel form an occasionally dark backdrop to Jacobson’s comic story of identity and loss. But this is not a tragic story, and the heart of the novel is in the freewheeling discussions and improbably witty arguments between Treslove and his widowed companions. Take, for example, this explanation offered at an absurd Passover Seder, one of the novel’s great set pieces: “the chicken symbolizes the pleasure Jewish men take in having a team of women to cook it for them.” In The Finkler Question, Jacobson has prepared a delicious and wild meal, and we are only too happy to dig in.
Mallory: Reading Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline is like meeting a new friend at a party: As you get to know her over the course of the evening, you fall madly in friend-love with her while also wanting her to be your mother, or at least your wise, worldly aunt. Part of the appeal of Cusk’s novel is in the way her narrator dispenses (or doesn’t dispense) information about herself. She isn’t self-involved: You only learn about her through her conversations with other people about other people. Despite her reticence, her intelligence shines, especially when she describes how it feels to be a woman: “[A]morphousness – the changing of shapes – had been a physical reality: her husband had been, in a sense, her mirror, but these days she found herself without that reflection.”
In her review of Outline, Heidi Julavits (author of The Folded Clock) writes: “Spend much time with this novel and you’ll become convinced that [Cusk] is one of the smartest writers alive.” I’m inclined to agree, but I would add this: Cusk’s writing is never weighed down by its intelligence – it’s effervescent.
Ashley: The first time I read White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, Barack Obama was running for president (the first time) and I was making the transition from high school to college. At that time, I thought I knew a thing or two about race, but Wise’s essays opened my eyes to many of the social justice issues that continue to plague us.
This “remix” version (who remixed it? Avicii?) tells the story of Wise’s life chronologically, rather than ordering the essays around themes like the previous two printings. This time around, the story that has stuck with me the most is in the first chapter. It’s about how Wise believed his grandfather was a good, honest businessman, who helped the mostly black community he lived in in myriad ways. But then, someone points out that his grandfather ran a liquor store—that he sold a legal but addictive drug in a disadvantaged neighborhood. For the first time, a young Wise begins seeing the complexity of the racial dynamics and coming to grips with his grandfather being a good but not perfect ally. Wise’s writing raises lots of questions without easy answers, and reveals just how silly it is to claim that we’re living in a “post-racial” America.
Freya: Eleanor and Park are not your typical YA romantic leads. There are no cheerleaders or jocks, no vampires and werewolves. Instead, they’re just two awkward and very real teenagers falling for each other over a mutual love of comics and The Smiths. The characters feel faithful to the uncertainty and messy contradictions of adolescent life. Eleanor is the kind of girl who describes Romeo and Juliet, that other paragon of teenage romance, as “shallow, confused, and dead.” She’s intelligent, sarcastic, kind, and brave, but also insecure and bullied due to her shabby clothes and plus-sized frame. While good-looking and passably popular, Park is a member of the only part-Korean family in their small, Midwestern town. He’s sensitive and kind and doesn’t mind rocking some smudged eyeliner (it’s the 80s, after all). Neither fit the profile of a YA teen idol, and the relatability of her protagonists is a testament to Rainbow Rowell’s ability to tap into the teenage experience – where first loves are sweet and awkward and all-consuming.