I've been furiously reading and writing staff picks at my job as a bookseller - and here are a few I came up with in recent weeks. The list below includes recently published novels as well as ones that you might have overlooked - and a couple of lesser known titles by well established authors - Patrick Modiano and Stefan Zweig. So if you want something good to read over the holidays, or are looking for a book to give - take a look!
Also half finished and much savored on my night table are Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng and The Lying-Down Room - a mystery by Anna Jaquiery.
Rock Paper Scissors by Naja Maria Aidt
This debut by an established Danish poet is a kind of literary whodunit set in an unnamed city - could be Stockholm, could be Brooklyn, depending on your perspective. The action kicks off when the owner of a stationary store learns of his father’s death. While cleaning out the apartment with his sister, he salvages a toaster, in which he finds a package. The discovery brings on a kind of psychological unraveling – and the novel ends up exploring the rock paper scissors one-upmanship of some male interactions. Aidt’s characters are intelligently and warmly drawn, her voice is fresh and original and she’s particularly good when writing about complex family dynamics. It’s a suspenseful well-paced book all right, but you’ll never take the poetry out of this poet! Beautifully translated by K.E. Semmel.
Out of the Dark by Patrick Modiano
Within the space of a few pages I was fully taken in by the sparse dreamlike narrative of this novel. It’s set in 1960’s Paris, where a handful of drifters spend their days in parks and cafes and their nights in shabby hotels. The narrator, a young bookseller, is looking for meaning when he attaches himself to an interesting couple, and subsequently becomes infatuated with the girl. The attraction seems mostly one sided, until they escape to London and he begins writing. The conclusion returns us to Paris and a strange reunion that had me furiously turning pages. Modiano seems to repurpose the same material again and again in his books. There’s always a haunting tone, a sense of loss, the notion that identity is malleable. The first time you go into Modiano’s world, you realize you have never been in such a place before. But once you’ve been there, you’ll want to go again, in his other books.
The Goodman Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ by Phillip Pullman
In this short but fascinating novel, Pullman hypothesizes that the heart of Christianity lies not so much in a trinity as in a duo: Twin brothers named Jesus and Christ. Jesus is the hero, the masterful storyteller with a deep moral conscience. Christ is the weaker brother, quick to self-justify and cover his tracks. Jesus is the better man, but Christ has a bent for theology and a jaundiced eye on posterity. In betraying his twin, he ensures that the Christian message is broadcast to subsequent generations. Some might find this novel offensive. Others, especially those who know the gospels well, will hear rhythmical and syntactical echoes of the King James translation. Be on the alert for the ways that Pullman switches up beloved stories with subtle and decisive changes. By separating church theology from the simple story of Jesus, as well as by addressing inconsistencies in the gospel narratives, Pullman offers his readers a serious theological exercise, which is both moving and illuminating.
Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig
I wasn’t far into this masterpiece by Stefan Zweig, before I knew it would be one of my favorite novels of all time. Toni Hofmiller, an ambitious Austrian cavalry officer makes a faut pas at a party, when he invites a crippled girl to dance. In order to make amends, he gets more deeply involved in her family. Then, unable to extract himself from the benefits of their society, and realizing that the girl has fallen in love with him, he finds himself in a self-made trap. Set before the First World War and rife with Freudian analysis, this is a psychologically complex story about how lack of judgment and the inability to make firm decisions, exacerbated by the desire to please, can change the course of a life. I never wanted this book to end. I laughed out loud. I also cried. It is an unwieldy novel and over the top in many ways, but that is part of its charm. Wes Anderson gave Zweig the nod in Grand Budapest Hotel but this novel is more than that film. It’s an unsung classic, which will capture your heart and your mind.
Boyhood Vol 3 My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard
I devoured all volumes of My Struggle as soon as I got my hands on them, but this one is my favorite. If you are interested in getting a taste of Knausgaard but don’t fancy committing to 3,600 pages, Boyhood is the perfect choice. It is by far the most lyrical and transporting of the volumes thus far and easily stands alone. Having read A Death in the Family and A Man in Love, I was initially reluctant to embark on a narrative about boyhood. But the descriptions of Norwegian childhood and of Karl Ove’s visits to his grandparents in the fiords are nothing short of transporting. Reading this novel is the closest I have ever been to becoming someone else. And isn’t that what good writing is all about? How does Knausgaard do it! You will also find some gut-wrenching backstory here, about Karl Ove’s relationship with his father – the relationship that inspired this stunning multi- volume contemporary classic.