Quick Lit November 2021
Kyrie: Poems

Kyrie: Poems

I just told you I picked up Doctors and Friends knowing full well it was a pandemic novel. I picked up Kyrie at the suggestion of an author friend who told me it was simply stunning and I had to read it—but when I began I had NO IDEA this collection of blank verse sonnets was about the 1918 influenza pandemic. The dedication, drawn from Alfred Crosby's book America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, reads, "Nothing else—no infection, no war, no famine—has ever killed so many in as short a period." I'm glad I read this, but emotionally, it was a tough go, with lines like, "The weeks of fewer cases were a tease" and "How we survived: we locked the doors and let nobody in." Published in 1995, this is already a modern classic, and I expect readers will be returning to this collection for decades to come. More info →
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Zorrie

Zorrie

I picked this new-this-year historical novel up at the urging of Wild Geese Bookshop's owner Tiffany Phillips (not realizing it's a National Book Award finalist). It runs just 161 pages, but that's room enough for Hunt to lay out the life story of Zorrie: orphaned young, heads north to flirts with big city living, finds precious work during the Depression as a radium girl, and eventually puts down roots in a tiny Indiana farming town, where she lives out the rest of her days. This is beautifully written, with strong Wendell Berry and Kent Haruf vibes, yet lacking the strong sense of redemption of those authors' stories. It's so sad. That being said, if you like stories that stick with a character over decades, even their whole lifetime, and grapple with longing, love, and loss, this is a good pick. More info →
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After You’d Gone

After You’d Gone

This was another book where I read the final paragraph and turned back to the beginning to read it again. I'm working my way through Maggie O'Farrell's backlist, and this, her 2000 debut, may be my favorite of her older works. Told from multiple points of view, in multiple timelines, it took me a few chapters to find my footing, but once I did I blew through this compelling mix of love story, mystery, and compelling family saga. You should know that terrible, seemingly random tragedies beset characters in O'Farrell's novels, yet in her plots these surprising turns don't feel cheap, but all too true to our own real life experiences. (As one character muses, "Why isn't life better designed so it warns you when terrible things are about to happen?") You'll see this again on my Best of the Year list. More info →
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Once Upon a Wardrobe

Once Upon a Wardrobe

Fans of The Chronicles of Narnia and Becoming Mrs. Lewis, take note: Patti's new book tells the story behind the story of Narnia. In alternating timelines, we meet a young Jack Lewis, whose life was largely emptied of love after his mother died. And we meet another 8-year-old boy, chronically ill and fated to die young, whose greatest joy might come from a book: the recently published novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Despite the sorrow inherent to the premise, the book is full of joy: I don't use the word "charming" a lot, but it certainly applies here. I listened to the audio version on Libro.fm; Fiona Hardingham's narration is lovely. More info →
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Doctors and Friends

Doctors and Friends

In late February 2020, Kimmery visited my local bookstore to speak about her then-new book The Antidote to Everything. When asked what she was working on next, she told the audience a little about her next book: a novel about seven female physician friends, and one particular doctor navigating impossible choices in the midst of a global pandemic. In February 2020! We all know what happened next, but in Kimmery's fictional version, it's a deadly artiovirus that sweeps the globe. I know some readers are avoiding pandemic reading at all costs right now, but I loved reading this story right now for the same reasons I love a good classic retelling: I get to enjoy the story on the page, of course, plus scrutinizing how Kimmery's imagined pandemic does and doesn't resemble our own adds another layer of readerly satisfaction (one that I know is not for everybody). I inhaled this book, and appreciated its well-developed female friendships every bit as much as the medical plot line. More info →
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Harlem Shuffle

Harlem Shuffle

For those who've only read The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, Whitehead's new novel is going to feel like a huge departure; this is more like Sag Harbor, his 2009 novel set in 1980s New York City. (As you can see, Whitehead has range.) At the center of the story sits Ray Carney, a man caught between two worlds: he wants to be a respectable family man, but can't seem evade the pull of the crime scene of 1960s Harlem, and its profits. This has been often described as a heist novel—and it is—but please know going in that it is carefully-constructed and slow-building, with rich character development and a sly sense of humor. Excellent on audio, as narrated by Dion Graham. More info →
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The Transit of Venus

The Transit of Venus

What to say about this book? For the first 75 pages, I was bored to tears. I could not keep the characters straight. I did not understand what Hazzard was up to. But by the end, I thought it to be one of the best books I'd ever read, with a spectacular—if devastating—ending. And then I flipped to the beginning to start again. I knew going in that Hazzard's husband once remarked that no one should have to read this book for the first time; read it and you'll see why. First-time readers should know that Hazzard knows what she's about, that it takes her ten years to write novels because each sentence is constructed with care, that this story, ostensibly about love and family, is every bit as much about power. More info →
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