One of the unexpected pleasures of being a bookseller is the opportunity (or, more accurately, the imperative) to read books that I might not otherwise have picked up. Given the sheer number of new books that come out each week, it’s often hard for me to decide exactly what to dive into next…but whatever I wind up choosing, I try to make sure it’s something that challenges me on some level.
Like many readers, when it comes to books, I absolutely have a Type. If a book is billed as a “dysfunctional-family saga” or “coming-of-age story,” you can bet that I’ll bite (bonus points awarded to anything having to do with old-money WASPs and/or boarding school). But what of those special, memorable books that have nothing whatsoever to do with my Type…and therefore deserve most of the credit for expanding my reading horizons?
What follows is a shout-out to five particular books that I likely wouldn’t have discovered on my own, that I decided to read specifically because they were the kinds of books I would NOT ordinarily have chosen for myself. Think of this as my own personal list of 2015’s Pleasant Surprises.
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish
I’ll get this out of the way early…don’t be fooled by the blurb on the book’s cover that promises “perhaps the finest and most unsentimental love story of the new decade.” Lish’s characters – Zou Lei, an illegal immigrant from western China, and Skinner, an Iraq war vet afflicted with a severe case of PTSD – may find love (or some version of it, at least), but they also find themselves facing down some of humanity’s ugliest aspects as they navigate life on society’s fringes. The recurring themes of squalor, violence and despair make this a difficult book to recommend, but the vitality of Lish’s writing and his commitment to bringing these marginalized characters to life are still on my mind, all these months later. Was I filled with blinding joy upon finishing this book? Um, no. Am I truly glad that I read it anyway? Without a doubt.
The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora
Before becoming a bookseller, I hardly ever read short stories. I decided to read Acampora’s debut story collection, The Wonder Garden, because I thought the premise intriguing: each of the thirteen stories is set in the well-to-do fictional Connecticut town of Old Cranbury, and many (if not most) of the town’s residents pop up in more than one story. The idea of suburbia as a place where manicured yards belie a host of dark secrets is certainly nothing new, but Acampora’s characters all feel like original creations in their own right, and she uses the clichés we associate with suburbia in ways that are smart and, in a lot of cases, genuinely funny. Some of these stories – like the tale of a married pair of Colonial preservationists and their bewildered children – are hilarious. Others – like the story of a mom struggling with an autistic son – are heart-wrenching. But all of them work beautifully as stand-alone stories, and as part of the larger narrative.
Speak by Louisa Hall
Hall’s wondrous Speak is billed as a novel that “explores the creation of artificial intelligence,” but it’s a far richer and more emotionally complex read than that descriptor would suggest. Part literary fiction, part sci-fi and part historical retelling, the story is told from the perspectives of several different characters. Among them: a Puritan woman traveling to America by boat in the 1600s; Alan Turing, communicating with his best friend’s mother via handwritten letters; and a tech whiz from the near future, jailed for the creation of overly-lifelike robots. What these characters have in common is a need to communicate with something – another person, or a machine – that may not be able to fully understand them. It’s a book that asks big questions about the nature of communication itself, and for something that I almost didn’t read for fear of it being strange and pedantic, it’s become one of my favorite books of the year.
Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt
Despite my childhood love of fantasy, I can’t remember the last time I read a fantasy book as an adult…that is, until I finished deWitt’s “modern fable” about a village boy, Lucien “Lucy” Minor, whose worldview is blown open when he accepts employment at the distant and forbidding Castle Von Aux. Undermajordomo Minor has many of the trappings of a medieval legend – a beautiful, innocent village girl, a pack of deranged royals, and servants wise beyond their years – but the way deWitt puts his story together is totally unique. The drily hilarious dialogue and moments of bizarre slapstick evoked everything from Wes Anderson to Monty Python and The Princess Bride. You never realize how few books make you laugh out loud until a book like this comes along.
The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kiernan
From Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale to Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning juggernaut All the Light We Cannot See, it’s been a good few years for books about World War II. So Kiernan’s The Hummingbird – which features a story-within-a-story about a forgotten player in WWII’s Pacific theater – didn’t catch my attention at first. But after I received multiple advance copies of the book in the mail, I thought it was a sign from the Reading Gods that I should give the book a chance. I’m so glad I did! Kiernan’s story centers on Deborah Birch, a tough, practical hospice-care worker dealing with the twin challenges of a hostile patient (a former professor) and a war-veteran husband whose PTSD is a real threat to their marriage. When the professor asks Deb to read a book he once wrote, about a Japanese fighter pilot on a failed mission to bomb coastal Oregon during the late days of WWII, she believes that the story holds lessons that may help her understand her husband and lead him on a path to healing. What I loved most about The Hummingbird was the light it shed on hospice work, and its exploration of what it means to find true peace after experiencing the worst of war.