I’m guessing that you’re gearing up for holiday book purchases? I’ve read more than 100 books during awards judging for the 2023-2024 National Book Critics Circle awards season, and, as usual, for pleasure, this year. Following are the ones I loved and believe are best, or, really, most noteworthy, as literature—your mileage may vary, of course, and I'd love to hear what you think if you wind up reading any of them.
Jamel Brinkley’s Witness
This is, hands-down, the best short story collection of the year. What does it mean to watch an injustice, to be a bystander? What do we owe each other? I taught one of the short stories in the collection a few years ago and reread it periodically because Brinkley has such a handle on the subtle, original details of drama as it unfolds in our lives, and possesses the capacity to turn those details and those quivering, shifting microbehaviors into art.
Justin Torres’s Blackouts
Blackouts is a particularly innovative novel that works in gaps and erasures of queer history.
Han Kang’s Greek Lessons
I loved Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. She’s back in fine form in this beauty, a novel in translation about a relationship between two people who have, to their quiet anguish, have lost or are losing their senses: a woman who tries to speak though she’s lost her voice and her teacher who is losing his sight.
Daniel Mason’s The North Woods
The North Woods is quite simply a masterpiece. It’s a novel, but also a series of interlinked stories and other pieces that center on 400 years of a house in Massachusetts, from the setting of stone by a couple fleeing Puritanical villagers to a future of ravaging climate change. It turns into a biography of a fictional house with ecological succession at its heart. Note: I didn’t know him at all, then, but I went to middle school in Palo Alto with the author, who I interviewed.
Jonny Steinberg, Winnie and Nelson
I’ve long been interested in Winnie and Nelson Mandela—well, really, since my visit to Jo’berg in South Africa many years ago for my cousin’s wedding, where I visited some exhibits on apartheid—and Steinberg’s is a stunning, complex portrait of their marriage, and different approaches to their social justice and political project.
The Hive and the Honey
Paul Yoon, a master, is back with an exquisite collection of short stories that form a kaleidoscope of the Korean diaspora and cohere partly because of imagery around fighting.
Labatut’s The Maniac
Labatut conducts a great retelling, partially fictional, of the troubled history of mathematicians and scientists who developed the path towards the fairly frightened condition of artificial intelligence. I think he sets himself apart by not becoming a shill for the tech sector, but also making compelling, absorbing portraits of thinkers, both flawed and fascinating and oftentimes dark, who influenced the tech sector.
Sheena Patel’s I’m a Fan
Sheena Patel’s I’m a Fan, out from Graywolf, is an outstanding debut. It’s a daring novel about fandom and the way we live now in the age of social media stalking. The voice of the novel is what sets it apart—intense and kinetic.
Marie N’Diaye’s Vengeance is Mine
There’s really no book by N’Diaye I would not read if given a chance. As soon as my spouse read her brilliant, eerie novel Ladivine, he said, here’s an author I know you’ll like, read this. He was right. She’s an inventive and ingenious author who makes interesting use of the uncanny. This one is about a woman lawyer who is asked to preside over the defense of a mother’s triple homicide that brings back memories from her own childhood.
Jonathan Lethem’s Brooklyn Crime Novel
My intellectual crush on Lethem continues apace – initially, because it focuses on deeply on Brooklyn and because of the tone, I felt this novel was going to revisit, in some sense, his novel (my favorite), Fortress of Solitude, but the book breaks new ground by structuring its material around short, and often experimental tiny chapters.
Vauhini Vara's This is Salvaged – Alta Live
I spoke to Vauhini Vara about her short story collection, This is Salvaged. You may remember that I was a huge fan of her debut The Immortal King Rao—one of the best, most original, and most intelligent novels of last year. The particularly interesting thing to me about her collection was how corporeal it was, almost like it was the other side of the coin from technology, reflecting what we lose as a result of an increasingly virtual reality, the prospective future of which was brilliantly rendered in her Pulitzer-finalist and NBCC Leonard Prize finalist The Immortal King Rao. You can watch a video of our AltaLive event here. (it was too short; I had many more questions!)
Earlier this year, I drove down to Los Angeles and Irvine to see a performance of my short story, initially published by Alta. The actress Kirsten Vangsness (Criminal Minds) performed it again for Symphony Space’s Selected Shorts, and you can listen to her energetic, breathless rendering, which I think is fantastically suited to the story, on their podcast.
Event to talk about Love Songs
I’ll be talking on Zoom about Love Songs for a Lost Continent and collections by fellow authors Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer and Lucian Childs. Here’s the link to register: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/identity-culture-in-short-fiction-a-conversation-tickets-731360558117?aff=oddtdtcreator&fbclid=IwAR1Ixx3ubxvnr_953hBcmTQRoBqt3fEjCetIO3583Z36JNyHYuK3MXGTIPE
Alta’s Issue Party
Tomorrow night at 5:45, I’ll be reading about writers’ workspaces at Alta’s issue party at City Lights in San Francisco (come out, come out if you are available!). Here are the mini profiles I wrote about authors and their writing habits and spaces: Mary Roach, Jon Mooallem, Shanthi Sekaran, Edan Lepucki, Reyna Grande, Myriam Gurba.
Go see the Yayoi Kusama exhibit at the SF MOMA. Her work never fails to interest and enchant me.
I’m now ducking back into a novel rewrite of the novel, Sea Smoke, that has been kicking my ass for the better part of this year—anyone know an FBI agent who understands what they’re up to in terms of cyber surveillance right now, and likely where the bureau is headed in the future? I'm also looking for friends to read the draft when it's done before I turn it in to my agent, so please let me know if you might be open to doing that when I (eventually) finish this round of rewriting.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you’re well in spite of the tragedies occurring in other parts of the world. Let me know how you’re doing and what you’re working on.