Alex: Lisa Lutz’s stellar characterization won me over almost immediately. All too often, “flawed” characters – especially female characters – are depicted in ways that are more charming than compelling (Exhibit A: The Manic Pixie Dream Girl). That is definitely not the case with Anna, Kate, and Georgianna, whose decades-spanning friendship begins at UC Santa Cruz, when Kate and Anna stumble upon George passed out outside a party. From there, their flaws – human, recognizable – only become more entrenched.
What’s more, the three women are delightfully unapologetic when it comes to their vices. Lutz writes: “George once commented that TV was Kate’s cocktail. And Anna told George that men were George’s cocktail. Anna held her vodka on the rocks aloft and said proudly, ‘And my cocktail is a fucking cocktail.’”
Though real-life addictions are no joke, Lutz conveys humor and compassion even when her protagonists are at their worst. What’s more, the nonlinear format depicts the missteps of these women in tantalizing vignettes, adding a layer of suspense to their antics. The result is a nuanced portrait of friendship and adulthood that’s both insightful and compulsively entertaining.
Mallory: After a recent visit to a banya in San Francisco with a friend got me interested in the world of public baths, I was delighted to discover Alexia Brue’s memoir on the subject. Brue is a complete novice in the realm of pleasure-seeking. (“Pleasure was an end in itself worth pursuing. Shocking. Especially to my stick New England code of punishment and reward.” Sound familiar? Her point of view is often similar to Elizabeth Gilbert’s, although Brue’s writing is much cleaner and more straightforward.)
Along with her friend Marina, a would-be Kazakhstani princess, Brue hatches a vague plan to open a Turkish-style bath in Manhattan. In the interest of “research,” the pair embarks on a tour of the world’s public bath houses — from Turkey to Italy to Russia to Finland to Japan. Marina comes and goes along the way, as does Brue’s boyfriend, Charles. Though she occasionally ruminates on their dissolving relationship, Brue’s writing really shines when she’s doing exactly what she set out to do: going in search of the perfect bath. Bathing rituals represent social customs, national histories, and even theology, and Brue’s story is a fascinating anthropological investigation into these spaces that exist in limbo between public and private.
Ashley: Before reading The Golem and the Jinni, my only experience with golems and jinns came from Game Boy games where you command cute little monsters to attack one another. As it turns out, there’s a lot more to both than I realized.
Helene Wecker’s beautiful and thoroughly researched debut novel is steeped in Jewish and Arabian folklore and grounded in the history of New York at the turn of the twentieth century. The Golem, a creature made of clay made in the likeness of its master’s wife, ends up alone on the streets of New York, her master having died on the journey from Poland to the United States. Wandering around New York City, overwhelmed by the deluge of desires she hears from people’s minds (without a master, she can hear everyone’s thoughts), she gets taken in by a kindly rabbi who names her Chava. Later, she also runs into the Jinni, a being made of fire but who takes on human likeness and was transplanted from the Syrian desert to New York after being trapped in a flask for one thousand years. Their attempts to blend in with the humans surrounding them – holding jobs, pretending to sleep so they don’t freak others out – form a refreshingly frank look at what it means to be human.
Justin: How do we make sense of the world through language? In this engaging and elegant book, James Geary explores how we use metaphors to make sense of the world. We use metaphors constantly, about once every 10–25 words. More surprising, though, is how much those same metaphors impact the way we think and act as well.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Geary is pretty handy with metaphors himself, as when he describes the way they exert “a potent but largely unnoticed influence on us. We don’t normally feel the long, slow grinding of Earth’s tectonic plates, but still the ground shifts beneath our feet.”
One of my favorite examples: When the stock market is up, we tend to say that it “climbed higher,” implying that the market is an agent acting of its own volition. When it’s down, however, analysts are liable to reach for something like “it dropped off a cliff,” which treats the market as an object whose decline in value has more to do with external forces (ie, gravity) than, say, managerial incompetence. What’s more, the metaphors choose for abstract concepts have concrete ramifications, affecting how likely we are to invest in a given stock or support certain policies. When Geary elucidates moments like these, the shifting beneath your feet can feel like an earthquake.