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Gift Guide 2020: Literary Page Turners

This year, losing myself in a book has never been quite so appealing. In the midst of a global pandemic and an overdue race reckoning, when our kids are home all the time, I’ve been looking to books for escape more than I ever have. Here is a list of some of the books that I haven’t been able to put down this year, brimming with suspense and fantastic writing. For the readers on your list who refuse to sacrifice great writing in the service of a gripping narrative, any of these books will serve you well.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

At the start of every book, there is always a period of adjustment. Who is telling this story? How? Why? I’m a sucker for compelling narrative structure, and Leave the World Behind immediately threw me off balance; I never really recovered. The book tells the story of a white, upper-middle class couple and their teenaged children who are vacationing at a “nicer-than-their-tiny-Brooklyn-apartment” AirBnB in Upstate New York. The description of their preparation is granular, so familiar, and increasingly foreboding in its everydayness. About halfway through their stay, and a little after noticing a notification about some sort of blackout, an elderly Black couple arrives at the door. They say they own the house, that there is a blackout in New York City, and they do not feel safe anywhere else. They are hoping that they can stay in the basement mother-in-law suite until they all have more information. Of course, that information never really comes. Strange things begin to happen and the two families are forced to navigate awkward racial and socioeconomic dynamics in order to survive. Shortlisted for the National Book Award, it is terrifying and brilliant.

If you still need convincing, listen to Rumaan Alam’s interview on Fresh Air. It is one of the best and most compelling author interviews I’ve ever heard. Give this to a friend who will immediately lend it to your when they’re done. 

The Party Upstairs by Lee Conell

The Party Upstairs is the story of one day in New York City, told through the perspective of an aging building superintendent and his 24-year old, highly educated, unemployed daughter. Readers join Martin and Ruby on a really bad day, and that's before everything goes terribly wrong. Conell is a gifted writer, immediately creating tension in such an uncomfortable way that I could not put this book down. My own discomfort smartly mirrored the discomfort that is often present in conversations about class and socioeconomic status. This is an impressive debut and I think that Lee Conell is a writer to watch. She’s not afraid to jump into the moral complexity of wealth and class - as well as the exploitation of those without access to either. It’s hard to blame Ruby for the lengths that she’ll go to for admittance into the upper echelons of the art world, not to mention the upper floors of the apartment building that her dad manages.

Rabbits for Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum

Rabbits for Food came out last year, but I think it has been criminally neglected. I read this book in one day while on vacation with my family. I finished it at 2am, sitting on the bathroom floor so as not to disturb my partner, unable to stop reading. Rabbits for Food chronicles the public unraveling of Bunny, a successful writer struggling with severe depression. At a New Year’s Eve dinner with her husband and friends, she sticks a fork in her leg. She then voluntarily checks herself into the psych ward of a prestigious New York hospital, and proceeds to refuse the treatment recommended by her doctors. Kirshenbaum sensitively and seriously handles mental health and depression, while simultaneously writing a hilarious book. It’s a comic update to The Bell Jar and I cannot recommend it enough. Bunny is insightful and witty, her disordered mind still sharp and aware of everything happening around her - including the roots of her own psychic pain and the love and frustration her supportive partner feels for his suffering wife. 

Severance by Ling Ma

Severance is also not a new book; it was released back in 2018, but our Book Club read it this year, uncannily right at the beginning of the Safer-at-Home order. It’s actually the only book that we didn’t discuss, as we hadn’t yet moved to our virtual discussion format. Ling Ma’s novel tells the story of Candace and her response to Shen Fever, an unsettling and fast-moving global pandemic that causes the afflicted to mindlessly continue their everyday routines until they die of fever. Candace, a Chinese American woman who works in the publishing industry in New York City, agrees to continue going to work when promised a huge raise in her salary. She becomes the custodian and protector of her office building, navigating a completely deserted city, and dutifully continuing her work. Eventually she is forced out of the city and finds herself on a journey to The Facility - a huge abandoned mall where a group of survivors has gathered, led by an IT technician named Bob. Ma’s writing is exquisite, and her ability to seamlessly weave together an immigrant story with our society’s mindless dedication to work and business is impressive, to say the least. This is a great pandemic novel. Controversially, I enjoyed it far more than Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, another great pandemic novel.

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

Megha Majumdar’s debut novel tells the story of a terrorist incident from three different perspectives: Jivan, a Muslim woman who lives in the slums and witnesses the explosion of a train and then carelessly writes a Facebook comment that leads to her arrest; PT Sir, Jivan’s former gym teacher with political aspirations; and Lovely, a member of the transgender Hijra community who has been learning English from Jivan, and who holds the key to Jivan’s freedom. The entire novel is dizzying. Through these three characters, Majumdar forces the reader to grapple with the very definition of terrorism. Her characterization of Jivan, specifically, is haunting. The young woman, whose family has lived in poverty her entire life and been the victim of violence at the hands of Indian police, quietly awaits what she imagines to be her inevitable fate in her jail cell. This is a poignant and gripping read.

Make sure to read Lopamudra Basu’s review on India Currents. Her perspective is valuable and essential. 

Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

I finished Death in Her Hands in one sitting - I could not put it down. Ottessa Moshfegh's exquisite writing style hooked me immediately. And then Vesta, the ultimate in unreliable narrators, beautifully and stunningly unravels - maybe. Beyond the beauty of the writing, Moshfegh offers a meta exploration into the mystery genre in a way that made me say, "Oh my goodness, this book is so smart!" at multiple times while I read. When I finished, I said to my patient partner who had been sitting next to me throughout my reading experience, dealing with lots of unsolicited status updates, "Well, now I have to read everything Ottessa Moshfegh has ever written." This is a truly psychological thriller with a shifting landscape that highlights the fact that mystery is around us - and within us - all the time.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

I read Such a Fun Age in a day. I couldn’t put it down. Kiley Reid is a shrewd cultural critic, and while I had a few issues with some plot points, her writing is brave, nuanced, and singular in its exploration of race and class. Emira is a Black woman working as a nanny to Briar, the two-year old daughter of Alix Chamberlain, a well-meaning, affluent white woman who works as a social influencer, and seeming brand ambassador who encourages confidence in other women similar to her. Or something. It's all a little convoluted in the way that social media jobs can be these days. Anyway, late one evening, Emira receives a panicked call from Alix asking that she come and get Briar and get her out of the house while they deal with some vandalism to their property. Emira takes Briar to a high-end grocery store where she is accused of abducting her. The whole exchange is caught on cell phone video, and the plot swirls out of control from there. Reid’s biting social critique is sweeping, not falling specifically on racial lines, but also on socioeconomic differences among Emira and her friends - all mid-to-late-twenty-somethings at the beginnings of their careers. Emira, who has struggled to move beyond an endless string of temporary jobs and nannying gigs, is the exception. 

Kiley Reid is a special writer and speaker - if you need further coaxing, check out this episode of Code Switch or search from one of her many virtual events over the past few months. This one isn’t likely to disappoint anyone who enjoys a soapy treatise on the racial fault lines always present in our society.

We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

We Cast a Shadow is blistering social satire at its finest. It’s as funny and compelling as it is genuinely terrifying and disconcerting. The book takes place fifteen minutes from now in a city that is almost certainly New Orleans. Our unnamed narrator is a Black man married to a white woman. They have a teenaged son named Nigel who was born with light skin, but has a birthmark on his face. As Nigel gets older, it continues to grow and become darker. His father is horrified. He seeks out a controversial treatment that bleaches skin. Recipients of the treatment can also have their lips thinned and their noses narrowed. The narrator’s severe internalized racism spills into all aspects of his life and the decades-long story that unfolds holds one tragedy after another. It’s impossible to look away. Scathing and brilliant, with echoes of Ralph Ellison and Mark Twain, this is a devastating glimpse into the impact of lifelong racism on BIPOC neighbors, friends, and loved ones all over this country.