Wednesday, July 17, 2024

3 More Books About Appalachia to Read Instead of Hillbilly Elegy

My friends at Book Riot went viral again (re-viral?) this week for a December 2020 post enumerating 15 books you should read about Appalachia instead of Hillbilly Elegy. It's an excellent list -- and also links to another excellent piece about why Hillbilly Elegy is problematic. 

I'm from Ohio, but the west side, so I can't claim to be from Appalachia -- more like Appalachia-adjacent. Therefore, I wouldn't say I'm an expert on Appalachia, but I do know a thing or two about books. So let me supplement Book Riot's list with three more books about Appalachia you should read instead of Hillbilly Elegy.

3. Bloodroot, by Amy Greene -- This wonderful novel about a family who lives on a mountain in East Tennessee is about as Appalachia as Appalachia gets. I loved this book -- a beautifully rendered story about heritage and deep connection to birthplace. 

2. Those We Thought We Knew, by David Joy -- Book Riot chose Joy's novel When These Mountains Burn for its list -- also an excellent read. Really, any novel by David Joy, a wonderful and criminally underread writer who grew up in Appalachia, is a good choice. Those We Thought We Knew is his latest, published in 2023, and I'd highly recommend it as an on-ramp to this writer, if you've never read him. 

1. Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver -- This novel, the co-winner of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize, is nothing short of a masterpiece. (Kingsolver's novel Flight Behavior is also a great choice if you're not ready to commit to 500+ pages.) 

Monday, July 15, 2024

Top 10 Most Anticipated Books of 2024 (Second Half)

If you've already perused LitHub's massive list of 2024 most anticipated books for the second half, let me offer you (better late than never) my own version. Here, you'll find BIG names (Murakami, Sally Rooney), writers returning to fiction after a long time between novels (Attenberg, Tulathimutte), and everything in between. 

Please remember, preorders are absolutely crucial for writers (especially midlist writers) for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because preorders help publishers gauge interest in a book, and therefore allocated marketing dollars. So please help writers and preorder early and often! (Also, all the links are below are affiliate links for, which means when you preorder from these links, I get a little cut, too -- which I will turn into more books, of course!)  

Anyway, here are my 10 most anticipated books of the rest of 2024 (and two for 2025):

My favorite tshirt: "Ban the fascists, save the books."

The Horse, by Willy Vlautin (July 30) -- Vlautin's 2021 novel The Night Always Comes changed my life, and so I'll read anything forever from this guy from now on. 

The Rich People Have Gone Away, by Regina Porter (August 6) -- I'm actually reading this now to review it for the Chicago Review of Books. In what is starting to feel like a glut of pandemic novels, this books feels like a really fresh approach, following the lives of several New Yorkers as they search for a missing pregnant woman. 

Colored Television, by Danzy Senna (September 3) -- Several readers whose opinions are usually right tell me I'm missing out by never having read Senna. So I'm gonna fix that now. 

Two-Step Devil, by Jamie Quattro (September 10) -- I love a good cult novel, and this sounds like a GREAT cult novel. I read Quattro's story collection I Want to Show Your More many moons ago and was very impressed, but never made it to her first novel, 2018's Fire Sermon. So I'm excited to read a novel by her for the first time. 

Rejection: Fiction, by Tony Tulathimutte (September 17) -- Like this guy's Twitter feed, this book promises to be totally irreverent, more than a little wrong, but absolutely hilarious. It's seven connected stories about "the touchiest problems of modern life." Yes, please.

Playground, by Richard Powers (September 24) -- I won't ever miss a new Powers novel -- I loved his books even before The Overstory became one of my favorite novels of the last decade or so.

When The World Tips Over, by Jandy Nelson (September 24) -- I rarely read YA but I'll read a new Jandy Nelson novel, only based on how much I loved I'll Give You the Sun -- still my go-to recommendation for the youths who come into the bookstore just looking for something good to read. 

Intermezzo, by Sally Rooney (September 24) -- Okay, fine, yeah, I'll add this to the list. Rooney's last novel didn't really do it for me, but Normal People I thought was great. I haven't read Conversations with Friends, so Intermezzo will be the tiebreaker for me. 

A Reason To See You Again, by Jami Attenberg (September 24) -- WOOHOO, Jami Attenberg's first new novel in seven years spans 40 years in 240 pages. As great a writer as she is, I'm sure the pages will fly by as quickly as the years. 

The City and Its Uncertain Walls, by Haruki Murakami (November 19) -- Here's the promo copy for this book: "A love story, a quest, an ode to books and to the libraries that house them, and a parable for these strange post-pandemic times." YES! Inject it directly into my brain. 

And here are two for 2025: 

The Heart of Winter, by Jonathan Evison (January 7, 2025)

A Forty-Year Kiss, by Nickolas Butler (February 4, 2025) 

Both of these guys are in my top 10 list of favorite writers, so I'm super excited they're both publishing again within a month of each other! 

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Best Books of 2024...So Far

Here's a weird coincidence -- or maybe it's not a coincidence at all. Three of my five favorite books of 2024 so far are by writers who started out in publishing as poets -- Kaveh Akbar, Ananda Lima, and Hanif Abdurraqib. I'd never been one to reach much poetry, but in the first half of 2024, I read more than I'd ever read before (including poetry by Jericho Brown's The Tradition, my colleague at StoryStudio Czaerra Galicinao Ucol's Pisces Urges, and Mary Oliver's Devotions). Maybe that reading influenced my "regular" reading and it's why I gravitated toward this books by poets. Or maybe it's just a coincidence. Doesn't matter. These five books, my five favorites of the year so far, are phenomenal. 

Martyr!, by Kaveh Akbar -- One of the first books I read in 2024, it's still near the top of my list. I think about this book ALL THE TIME. Immense. 

Perris, California, by Rachel Stark -- Here's the most underrated book of 2024 so far, in my view. A publisher's rep sent me an ARC of this book because he thought I'd like it. And of course he was right. Side note: Publisher's sales reps are the hardest working, most underappreciated people in publishing. I'm so glad he put this book on my radar. It's a truly accomplished debut. 

Blue Ruin, by Hari Kunzru -- The third of a thematic trilogy, this book cemented Hari Kunzru as one of my absolute favorite writers and an immediate must-read from now on whenever he publishes.

Craft: Stories I Wrote for the Devil, by Ananda Lima -- Still completely in awe of this book. It's an amazing feat of, yes, CRAFT.

There's Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension, by Hanif Abdurraqib -- I'll follow Abdurraqib WHEREVER his mind wanders, but especially when his mind is wandering about basketball -- and social justice and his own life and about a million other things as well.

Sunday, June 30, 2024

Margo's Got Money Troubles, by Rufi Thorpe: On Authenticity and Power and OnlyFans

The title and cover art of Margo's Got Money Troubles, by Rufi Thorpe, make it seem like one of those breezy reads about a quirky, cool Zillennial in over her head in the real world. It is that, but it's that only in the sense that, like, Gone Girl is a story about a failing marriage. That's to say, there's a WHOLE lot more going on here. 

This is a novel about authenticity and about correcting power dynamics both in relationships and in society writ large. Margo, a 19-year-old college kid, has an affair with her 20-years-older-than-her-married-with-children college English professor. She doesn't really even like the guy, but he makes her feel a certain kind of way...and later, she understand he abused his power to seduce her. He's a real shithead (and also, side note, Thorpe hilariously gives him some really stupid notions about fiction -- he's a terrible teacher, too). He's furious she decides to keep the pregnancy, and he tells her he wants nothing to do with her or the child, which is actually fine by Margo. 

But things start to get tough. She's fired from her job because her mother won't help her with childcare. Two of her roommates move out because they don't want to share an apartment with a baby. And so, as the title makes clear, Margo runs into a financial brick wall. Her solution: She starts an OnlyFans.

The novel is about all the problems this taboo "profession" creates for her and how so many people make snap judgments about her character and her fitness to be not just a mother but also a productive member of society. The strength of this book is how it makes the case for people like Margo being able to reclaim control over their own lives, how with some guardrails and precautions, sites like OnlyFans allow women to set their own course, to rebalance the power dynamic. 

And then, there's Margo's father Jinx. Jinx, who is one of my favorite characters I've read in a novel in some time, is a former professional wrestler and drug addict. He'd been only an occasional participant in her life for most of it -- as he also had been married with a family when he had an affair with Margo's mother. But now he is back, having retired, and wants to do the right thing better late than never. After some initial hesitancy, he is supportive of her new job, and is a huge help to her in taking care of her kid. 

The novel -- often hilariously -- plays wrestling and sex work off of each other as two examples of entertainment where we it's the consumers of this content who is trying to wrest a reality from an obvious fiction. This is such a smart comparison -- especially given the idea that professional wrestling is widely accepted in society, but OnlyFans is looked down upon.

I really, really enjoyed reading this -- Thorpe has created some captivating characters here, and then set them up together in the cage match of life to let them fight it out. Highly recommended!

Monday, June 24, 2024

The Material, by Camille Bordas: Yes, Jerry, Comedians Can Still Be Funny

The Material by Camille Bordas is a novel about a fictional MFA program in stand-up comedy. It's a very funny book, and like the best stand-up comedy, it's also astute and wise. 

I think the funniest part of this book is the whole-book-long running joke that there could be an MFA program for stand-up comics. Can you imagine? LOL! As if the whole School of MFA vs School of Life argument among fiction writers isn't contentious enough, just think what that debate would be like among comedians? Imagining that is almost as funny as anything here on the page.

So the story is about a group of MFA candidates and their teachers and their adventures over the course of one difficult Chicago winter day. There are crushes and rivalries and a visiting professor who has just behaved badly and may be cancelled. But the school decides, despite some protests within the English Department (where else would an MFA program in stand-up comedy be housed?), to not rescind this famous comedian's invitation to come teach in the program. 

But the real meat of this story is the idea of mining real-life for material. Where is the line between one's private life (if such a thing exists) and what can be used to get a laugh? A drug-addicted family member? An unrequited crush? Holocaust survivors? Molestation? A school shooting? A childhood illness? All of these are considered throughout the novel.

Furthermore, though, when is it okay to "borrow" from someone else's idea or from someone else's experience for a bit? The age-old question: Where is the line between taking-off-from or being-inspired-by and straight-up stealing?

A huge strength of this novel is how it treats these questions -- less a question of WHAT is offensive (i.e., should some topics be avoided all together?) and more a question of how should supposedly offensive topics be treated. This novel comes up with much more nuanced answers to these questions than some of the whiny comedians (cough, Jerry Seinfeld, cough cough) who have complained recently that comedians can't be funny anymore. 

Comedians can indeed still be funny. Comedians can also still bomb. A huge part of the fun of this novel is watching these comedians develop bits, riff with each other, and dissect each other's comedy. Yes, a novel about comedians better be funny, and this sure is. The last scene of the novel, during which all the characters come together for a comedy battle against improv troupe Second City at the legendary Empty Bottle is just a beautiful mess of comedy and slapstick and cringe and just about anything else that'll make you laugh heartily.

(If you're interested in some further insight, here's a great interview with the author at the Chicago Review of Books.)