Well, I can’t say that I anticipated that on April 14, 2020, we’d be quarantined inside in the midst of a strange three-day snowstorm that just doesn’t seem to want to end. But, here we are. So, I thought it would be a good idea to do a more extended list of quarantine recommendations for you.
First, though, Jill and I want to say thank you. As I sit in the midst of our dining room bookshop, looking at kids' toys strewn all over and wishing that I had more coffee, there are stacks of books threatening to topple, all waiting to be shipped to your homes. Your online orders have kept us going - and then some! Thank you, thank you, thank you! We appreciate your patience as we navigate delays at our distributor, an overwhelmed postal service (our personal heroes - our mail carrier now picks up 10-20 packages from our porch almost daily), and three small children (in the Dotters family) under the age of four who take up quite a lot of our time and energy.
Okay, here are some of the books that I love so far this year, including a few that are coming out in the next few months. I’ve always found that having something to look forward to helps me to stay optimistic in challenging times. This is a lengthy list. Try to imagine that you’ve just walked into the store and you’re looking at our favorites table and I’m immediately telling you that these are the books you need to read. I’m looking forward to doing that in person sometime soon.
Days of Distraction initially presents itself as a straightforward narrative of a twenty-something tech journalist facing the daunting decision of whether to leave her job to follow her long-term partner across the country to pursue his graduate degree. This book is so much more than that, though. Chang's novel is beautifully crafted, weaving together moments of narrative intrusion and historical instances of racial micro-aggressions toward Asian, and specifically, Chinese American people. The narrator isn't always likable, but who is in their twenties. Her struggle to fight for her own career often feels at odds with her struggle to fight for her relationship; these challenges are authentically conveyed in a way that isn't dramatic. Days of Distraction is a solid debut novel and Chang's voice is fresh and vital to our times.
There is no way this book will not be included on my ‘Favorite Books of 2020’ list! I loved it! Lily King is an incredible writer. Casey, her protagonist, is one of the most authentic characters I’ve ever read. Despite her financial troubles, she is incapable of being anything other than herself - a writer. This is a book about love and grief and working as a server and I thought it was perfect. Are your expectations too high yet?
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. She is an author to watch, and this is a great book to read on a snowy (or sunny), socially distanced day.
This Town Sleeps marries the physical world to the spiritual world as Marion, a gay Ojibwe man, awakens a dog revenant connected to the death of a young man from his past. As Marion struggles to connect with other openly gay men on his reservation and in the surrounding area, he finds himself on a journey to discover why he feels so connected to Kayden Kelliher, a classmate who was murdered during their senior year of high school. His journey forces him to confront the reasons that, despite his feelings of discontent, he cannot seem to move away from his hometown and settle down with a man who is comfortable with his sexuality. This is a fascinating book with so much heart and soul.
Somehow it feels possible to say that I both love books like Brandon Taylor's debut novel AND I've never read anything like it before. The action of the book takes place over one weekend at the end of a Wisconsin summer. Wallace, Taylor's protagonist, is a Black, gay, biochemistry graduate student who left his life, and trauma, behind in Alabama, moving north to inhabit the life of the person he hoped to become. Of course, nothing is that simple. Taylor's language is both propulsive and breathtaking. His willingness to wade into the murky waters of racism, sexism, and elitism is both necessary and challenging. I really loved Real Life and I cannot wait to see what Brandon Taylor does next.
In West Mills is a beautiful and cohesive debut. So often first novels try to do too much. De'shawn Charles Winslow did not fall prey to that impulse. Reminiscent of Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Winslow has written Knot Centre, a woman who speaks her mind - for better or for worse. She is passionate, intelligent, and stubborn to a fault. The events of the novel take place from the 1940s to the 1980s, allowing readers to inhabit West Mills for a while, and watch as fateful decisions and their consequences play out for the city's citizens. In such a small town, secrets weigh heavy and threaten to tear people apart, but Winslow's writing is exuberant and full of life. His characters are never fully taken under by their sorrows - a rarity in literature today. This isn’t a new book, but I don’t feel like it got the attention that it deserved when it came out last summer, and I think it would be a great one to read right now. Love and connection are at the center of the narrative - and who doesn’t need more of that?
How Much of These Hills is Gold is the story of a Chinese American family living in the American West during and after the Gold Rush. Sam and Lucy are the children of prospectors and they each inherit that role in very different ways, but with much the same goal - to find home. C Pam Zhang is a magical storyteller, following Lucy through three different timelines, creating a three dimensional thing that feels like it can be held in your hand, examined from all different angles. Her words are living and breathing and this is probably in my top three so far this year. Read it!
OUT SOON! And remember, you can always pre-order books through us.
Release Date: June 9, 2020
Zaina Arafat's You Exist Too Much is unquestionably one of my favorite books of the year. This debut novel blew me away. Arafat's narrator is confident in her vulnerability; her desire to be seen and understood is visceral and uncomfortably familiar. The intoxication of unrequited love and the unsettling feeling that can accompany settling down are recognizable, and yet, in Arafat's capable hands, I was transported. This book is for anyone who has struggled to fit into society's neat boxes, who has been frustrated when emotions don't follow a logical path, and who has been disappointed to find that sometimes the love of others isn't enough.
Release Date: June 2, 2020
The Second Home is a novel of place - two places really: Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Wellfleet, Massachusetts. These two homes have molded Ann, Poppy, and Michael in ways they each struggle to admit. Christina Clancy is a special writer; her characters are alive on the page - hurt, damaged, lonely, and desperate to return to a time in their lives when things were simpler, when they were together. This is a perfect summer read: substantive, heartfelt storytelling about the way a family is made.
Release Date: May 5, 2020
Dr. François S. Clemmons's memoir is authentic storytelling at its finest. Clemmons, a trained opera singer who became one of the most beloved neighbors in Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, shares the story of his life with exuberance and authenticity. As a gay, Black man, his presence on a children's television show was revolutionary. Readers are admitted into his close and personal friendship with Fred Rogers. We are also invited into the most painful and humiliating parts of his life as he deals with prejudice against both his race and sexuality. While Clemmons is honest about his feelings of frustration and fatigue regarding the racism and homophobia he encountered throughout his life, readers are left with the portrait of a man who has spent his life pursuing the things that he loves.
Release Date: August 4, 2020
I loved The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. Each character is alive and breathing on the page. Emezi's beautiful writing creates a visceral, albeit painful, world in which gender, sexuality, and the rules about who you're allowed to love are fluid and, unfortunately, dangerous. Sometimes great storytelling is an elusive thing. This is great storytelling.
Release Date: June 9, 2020
In my recent reading history, I cannot think of a book that I enjoyed so much with such an unlikeable narrator. It's a feat to create a character who consistently makes the decision that I wouldn't make, and yet I found myself vehemently rooting for Jane. She is young, strong-willed, misguided, and traumatized by her father's drinking. She is also fiercely loved by her mother and boyfriend, a.k.a: the father of her unborn baby, and yet she struggles to accept their love since she cannot love herself. This is a slim but fierce debut - darkly comic and highly original. Put Jean Kyoung Frazier's Pizza Girl on your summer reading list right now.
Release Date: August 11, 2020
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 throughout the book. 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.
Release Date: May 5, 2020
I loved Little Eyes! Samantha Schweblin tells a creepy story like no other - have you read Fever Dream? Wow! The kentucki is a perfect metaphor for the shadowy technology we have all allowed into our homes, cars, phones, and lives. Her ability to turn a story of technology gone awry into a semi-hopeful tome about the possibility of global connection is incredible. With spare, startling prose, her writing feels so alive. I enjoyed every minute.
Release Date: April 28, 2020
From start to finish, The Knockout Queen deals with the heavier things: socioeconomic disparity, the effects of mass incarceration on a micro level, sexuality, bullying, and corruption. Through it all, Rufi Thorpe shines a spotlight on the unlikely friendship of Michael, our narrator, and Bunny Lampert, a six-foot, blond teenager with dreams of the Olympics. Michael lives next door to Bunny's mansion in a small, run-down home owned by his aunt. Bunny's father is a corrupt real estate agent who has been bribing, lying, and cheating his way to the top. Their already scant adolescent idealism is tested as Bunny makes a decision, in defense of Michael, that alters the course of their lives. Micheal's narration is sharp, witty, honest, and unflinching. His love for Bunny is palpable. Ultimately, The Knockout Queen is a beautiful story of friendship and fighting for the things, and people, you believe in.
I had the privilege of talking about my Quarantine Reading List with Kate Archer Kent, host of The Morning Show on Wisconsin Public Radio, Kalan Bavinck from The Book Store in Appleton, and Nancy Baenen from Arcadia Books in Spring Green. We talked about how the pandemic has effected our businesses and the books that we're all excited about. You can listen to our conversation here.