Best books of May: Literature and fiction

Erin Kodicek on May 16, 2019
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A lyrical, morally complex family saga; an uproarious and provocative work of satire; a sobering story set right after 9/11, and a heart-wrenching but hopeful yarn. 

See all of our literature and fiction picks, or browse the rest of the Best Books of the Month.


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The Guest Book by Sarah Blake

Sarah Blake’s latest novel, The Guest Book, is a gorgeous epic that charts the course of an American family over three generations, from the 1930s to present day. Blake draws you into the Milton clan, and the more I became privy to their secrets, fears, and desires, the more I felt at home with every flawed one of them. Early in the novel, Blake’s character Evie tells her students, "History is between the cracks,” and so it is in this book: a history created in moments big and small, knitting itself together inside us, and of us. Crockett Island, off the coast of Maine, bought by Kitty and Ogden Milton in 1936 as a place of refuge and legacy, is as much a character in the novel as those who gather there. Through Blake’s writing I could smell the ocean, see the lilac tree beside the door. And I could feel Kitty and Ogden’s dream fray when the grandchildren inherit the island and all it represents. The Miltons’ story mirrors the times in which they lived, and we watch as parents and siblings make choices driven by ambition, prejudice, or pride that later haunt them and their progeny. Issues of gender inequality, classism, racism, breaking free from the past—Blake tackles them all, because all play an important role in the history of the family as well as that of the country in which we live. There is so much I want to tell you about this book. So many passages I have underlined and returned to. Instead, I invite you to visit the Miltons of Crockett Island in the pages of The Guest Book yourself, so that you too may experience the emotional resonance of Blake’s remarkable and thought-provoking novel. —Seira Wilson


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Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman

Riots I Have Known is a spitfire of a novel: funny, abrasive, and intelligent. As a prison riot thunders in the background, an inmate narrates the action from the Will and Edith Rosenberg Media Center for Journalistic Excellence in the Penal Arts. For several years, the inmate has reported the facts of prison life in the literary journal The Holding Pen (a stunt led by the PR-savvy warden), which has garnered a national following. In the journal, he regales readers with the disquieting and daily events inside a prison, while meandering through bourgeoisie meditations on art, culture, religion—and there is no way you won’t laugh out loud. Like Proust and Knausgaard, his unflinching pledge to narrate his own thoughts is virtuous, ruthless, comical and addictive, and grows even more poignant as the mob closes in on the media center. Ryan Chapman is a gifted wordsmith, and his debut, which whips by, is intensely satisfying. —Al Woodworth


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Correspondents by Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy is a great writer, but what catapults him to excellence is his ability to immerse readers in hard moments in history. His debut novel, Christodora, focused on the AIDS epidemic, and his sophomore novel follows the life of Rita Khoury, an American-Lebanese foreign correspondent who is dispatched to Baghdad during the first years of America’s invasion in the early 2000s. There, she and her fellow journalists, photographers, and translators—who become more like family—bear witness to the eruption of violence, chaos and unrest. Murphy’s novel spans the generations, giving readers a panoramic view of Rita’s family and what it means to be living in America (and abroad) in the aftermath of September 11th. What makes this novel so good is the characters—the complexity of their lives and familial obligations, the empathy they evoke, the mistakes that they make and the positions they hold—as well as the author’s deftly human portrayal of the Iraq War. Correspondents is proof that the best novels are as important and insightful as nonfiction. —Al Woodworth


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A Job You Mostly Won't Know How to Do by Pete Fromm

For Taz and his wife, Marnie, the fixer-upper they buy is symbolic of so much about them and where they are in life. It’s a work in progress, the first step in the life they hope to build together. And when they learn Marnie is pregnant during the renovation, it is one more piece falling into place. But their grand plan to build the perfect life falls apart when Marnie dies in childbirth. Now Taz must navigate first-time fatherhood alone, mentally clinging to the shattered remains of how he thought his life would be, with barely enough time or mental energy to cope with the way it’s turned out. A carpenter by trade, Taz is used to fixing and making, but this is an ordeal he can’t fix or make conform to plan. Pete Fromm excels at showing how everyday people cope with tragedy and endure what they cannot evade. A Job You Mostly Won't Know How to Do is a quietly elegant novel about working through grief and loss by putting one foot in front of the other and about letting people into your broken places to comfort and to heal you. —Vannessa Cronin

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