Best Books of the Month: Literature & Fiction Edition (via Amazon.com)

QUINOA (2)

1. The First Bad Man by Miranda July

From the acclaimed filmmaker, artist, and bestselling author of “No One Belongs Here More Than You,” a spectacular debut novel that is so heartbreaking, so dirty, so tender, so funny–so Miranda July–readers will be blown away.

Here is Cheryl, a tightly-wound, vulnerable woman who lives alone, with a perpetual lump in her throat. She is haunted by a baby boy she met when she was six, who sometimes recurs as other people’s babies. Cheryl is also obsessed with Phillip, a philandering board member at the women’s self-defense non-profit where she works. She believes they’ve been making love for many lifetimes, though they have yet to consummate in this one.
When Cheryl’s bosses ask if their twenty-one-year-old daughter Clee can move into her house for a little while, Cheryl’s eccentrically-ordered world explodes. And yet it is Clee–the selfish, cruel blond bombshell–who bullies Cheryl into reality and, unexpectedly, provides her the love of a lifetime.

Tender, gripping, slyly hilarious, infused with raging sexual fantasies and fierce maternal love, Miranda July’s first novel confirms her as a spectacularly original, iconic and important voice today, and a writer for all time. “The First Bad Man” is dazzling, disorienting, and unforgettable.

2. Almost Famous Women: Stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman

From “a top-notch emerging writer with a crisp and often poetic voice and wily, intelligent humor” (The Boston Globe): a collection of stories that explores the lives of talented, gutsy women throughout history.

The fascinating lives of the characters in Almost Famous Women have mostly been forgotten, but their stories are burning to be told. Now Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise, resurrects these women, lets them live in the reader’s imagination, so we can explore their difficult choices. Nearly every story in this dazzling collection is based on a woman who attained some celebrity—she raced speed boats or was a conjoined twin in show business; a reclusive painter of renown; a member of the first all-female, integrated swing band. We see Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Allegra; Oscar Wilde’s troubled niece, Dolly; West With the Night author Beryl Markham; Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, Norma. These extraordinary stories travel the world, explore the past (and delve into the future), and portray fiercely independent women defined by their acts of bravery, creative impulses, and sometimes reckless decisions.

The world hasn’t always been kind to unusual women, but through Megan Mayhew Bergman’s alluring depictions they finally receive the attention they deserve. Almost Famous Women is a gorgeous collection from an “accomplished writer of short fiction” (Booklist).

3. The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton

After witnessing the death of his younger brother in a terrible home accident, 14-year-old Kevin and his grieving mother are sent for the summer to live with Kevin’s grandfather. In this peeled-paint coal town deep in Appalachia, Kevin quickly falls in with a half-wild hollow kid named Buzzy Fink who schools him in the mysteries and magnificence of the woods. The events of this fateful summer will affect the entire town of Medgar, Kentucky.

Medgar is beset by a massive Mountaintop Removal operation that is blowing up the hills and back filling the hollows. Kevin’s grandfather and others in town attempt to rally the citizens against the ‘company’ and its powerful owner to stop the plunder of their mountain heritage. When Buzzy witnesses the brutal murder of the opposition leader, a sequence is set in play which tests Buzzy and Kevin to their absolute limits in an epic struggle for survival in the Kentucky mountains.

Redemptive and emotionally resonant, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth is narrated by an adult Kevin looking back on the summer when he sloughed the coverings of a boy and took his first faltering steps as a man among a rich cast of characters and an ambitious effort to reclaim a once great community.

4. See How Small by Scott Blackwood

A riveting novel about the aftermath of a brutal murder of three teenage girls, written in incantatory prose “that’s as fine as any being written by an American author today.” (Ben Fountain)

One late autumn evening in a Texas town, two strangers walk into an ice cream shop shortly before closing time. They bind up the three teenage girls who are working the counter, set fire to the shop, and disappear. SEE HOW SMALL tells the stories of the survivors–family, witnesses, and suspects–who must endure in the wake of atrocity. Justice remains elusive in their world, human connection tenuous.

Hovering above the aftermath of their deaths are the three girls. They watch over the town and make occasional visitations, trying to connect with and prod to life those they left behind. “See how small a thing it is that keeps us apart,” they say. A master of compression and lyrical precision, Scott Blackwood has surpassed himself with this haunting, beautiful, and enormously powerful new novel.

5. West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan

A “rich, sometimes heartbreaking” (Dennis Lehane) novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last years in Hollywood

In 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a troubled, uncertain man whose literary success was long over. In poor health, with his wife consigned to a mental asylum and his finances in ruins, he struggled to make a new start as a screenwriter in Hollywood. By December 1940, he would be dead of a heart attack.

Those last three years of Fitzgerald’s life, often obscured by the legend of his earlier Jazz Age glamour, are the focus of Stewart O’Nan’s gorgeously and gracefully written novel. With flashbacks to key moments from Fitzgerald’s past, the story follows him as he arrives on the MGM lot, falls in love with brassy gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, begins work on The Last Tycoon, and tries to maintain a semblance of family life with the absent Zelda and daughter, Scottie.

Fitzgerald’s orbit of literary fame and the Golden Age of Hollywood is brought vividly to life through the novel’s romantic cast of characters, from Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway to Humphrey Bogart. A sympathetic and deeply personal portrait of a flawed man who never gave up in the end, even as his every wish and hope seemed thwarted, West of Sunset confirms O’Nan as “possibly our best working novelist” (Salon).

6. Sweetland by Michael Crummey

The scarcely populated town of Sweetland rests on the shore of a remote Canadian island. Its slow decline finally reaches a head when the mainland government offers each islander a generous resettlement package the sole stipulation being that everyone must leave. Fierce and enigmatic Moses Sweetland, whose ancestors founded the village, is the only one to refuse. As he watches his neighbors abandon the island, he recalls the town s rugged history and its eccentric cast of characters. Evoking The Shipping News, Michael Crummey one of Canada s finest novelists conjures up the mythical, sublime world of Sweetland s past amid a stormbattered landscape haunted by local lore. As in his critically acclaimed novel Galore, Crummey masterfully weaves together past and present, creating in Sweetland a spectacular portrait of one man s battle to survive as his environment vanishes around him. Praise for Galore A glittering, fabulist tale. Los Angeles Times”

7. Black River by S.M. Hulse

A tense Western and an assured debut, Black River tells the story of a man marked by a prison riot as he returns to the town, and the convict, who shaped him.  When Wes Carver returns to Black River, he carries two things in the cab of his truck: his wife’s ashes and a letter from the prison parole board. The convict who held him hostage during a riot, twenty years ago, is being considered for release.Wes has been away from Black River ever since the riot. He grew up in this small Montana town, encircled by mountains, and, like his father before him and most of the men there, he made his living as a Corrections Officer. A talented, natural fiddler, he found solace and joy in his music. But during that riot Bobby Williams changed everything for Wes — undermining his faith and taking away his ability to play.

How can a man who once embodied evil ever come to good? How can he pay for such crimes with anything but his life? As Wes considers his own choices and grieves for all he’s lost, he must decide what he believes and whether he can let Williams walk away.

With spare prose and stunning detail, S. M. Hulse drops us deep into the heart and darkness of an American town.

8. God Loves Haiti by Dimitry Elias Leger

Set during the 2010 earthquake, this formidable debut pays homage to the resilient people of Haiti.

At the heart of God Loves Haiti are the connected but divergent fates of its President, his wife, and her lover. The first lady has locked her paramour in the closet of her room at the National Palace, in an attempt to abandon him and to escape from her eternally godforsaken hometown of Port-au-Prince. She meets her husband, the soon-to-be ex-President, at the airport. Standing on the tarmac, she realizes that while she does not love him, she’s grateful to him. It is at this moment that buildings “tumble on people as if they were made of cards.”

In thirty-five seconds, more than 200,000 people are killed and 1.3 million are left homeless. An earthquake has struck, ravaging a land that is plagued by poverty and poor infrastructure. Yet in this stunning novel the amazing characters are never simply victims.

The world has fallen down around them, laying bare remorse, pain, isolation, and unalloyed grief now devastatingly realized through her interrupted plans, and irrevocably altering all their lives. The first lady is having second thoughts about choosing a glamorous life in Europe over a passionate love in a tropical paradise. Is her lover even still alive?

Anchoring this heartwarming and constantly surprising love story is its affectionate depiction of Haiti, in all its complexity—its proud past as the first nation established by a successful slave revolt, its entangled politics with France and the United States, and its efforts to rise from the ruins to build anew.

God Loves Haiti is an enthralling first novel that is as astonishing as it is entertaining.

9. If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie

A heartfelt and wondrous debut, by a supremely gifted and exciting new voice in fiction.

Will has never been to the outside, at least not since he can remember. And he has certainly never gotten to know anyone other than his mother, a fiercely loving yet wildly eccentric agoraphobe who drowns in panic at the thought of opening the front door. Their little world comprises only the rooms in their home, each named for various exotic locales and filled with Will’s art projects. Soon the confines of his world close in on Will. Despite his mother’s protestations, Will ventures outside clad in a protective helmet and braces himself for danger. He eventually meets and befriends Jonah, a quiet boy who introduces Will to skateboarding. Will welcomes his new world with enthusiasm, his fears fading and his body hardening with each new bump, scrape, and fall. But life quickly gets complicated. When a local boy goes missing, Will and Jonah want to uncover what happened. They embark on an extraordinary adventure that pulls Will far from the confines of his closed-off world and into the throes of early adulthood and the dangers that everyday life offers. If I Fall, if I Die is a remarkable debut full of dazzling prose, unforgettable characters, and a poignant and heartfelt depiction of coming of age.

10. The Business of Naming Things by Michael Coffey

“Riveting . . . vibrant and unsparing.” —Publishers Weekly (starred and boxed review)

“Superb. . . . Startlingly original.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“Once I started reading these stories, I couldn’t stop. They absorbed me thoroughly, with their taut narratives and evocative language—the language of a poet.” —JAY PARINI, author of Jesus: The Human Face of God and The Last Station

“Sherwood Anderson would recognize this world of lonely, longing characters, whose surface lives Coffey tenderly plumbs. These beautiful stories—spare, rich, wise and compelling—go to the heart.” —FREDERIC TUTEN, author of Self Portraits: Fictions and Tintin in the New World

“Whether [Coffey is] writing about a sinning priest or a man who’s made a career out of branding or about himself, we can smell Coffey’s protagonists and feel their breath on our cheek. Like Chekhov, he must be a notebook writer; how else to explain the strange quirks and the perfect but unaccountable details that animate these intimate portraits?” —EDMUND WHITE, author of Inside a Pearl and A Boy’s Own Story

Among these eight stories, a fan of writer (and fellow adoptee) Harold Brodkey gains an audience with him at his life’s end, two pals take a Joycean sojourn, a man whose business is naming things meets a woman who may not be what she seems, and a father discovers his son is a suspect in an assassination attempt on the president. In each tale, Michael Coffey’s exquisite attention to character underlies the brutally honest perspectives of his disenchanted fathers, damaged sons, and orphans left feeling perpetually disconnected.

Michael Coffey is the author of three books of poems and 27 Men Out, a book about baseball’s perfect games. He also co-edited The Irish in America, a book about Irish immigration to America, which was a companion volume to a PBS documentary series. He divides his time between Manhattan and Bolton Landing, New York. The Business of Naming Things is his first work of fiction.

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