Best literature and fiction of July

Erin Kodicek on July 18, 2019
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A heart-wrenching novel about a unique family living off the grid in Appalachia Ohio; a story that expertly explores the highs and lows of romantic and familial love; a book senior editor Chris Schluep has dubbed "the great Pacific Northwest novel," and more.

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


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Stay and Fight by Madeline ffitch

Winter is coming! And if you’re on your own in Appalachian Ohio, you’d better come up with a good game plan. For Helen, this means enlisting recently displaced neighbors Karen and Lily, along with the couple’s precocious son, Perley, to create a homestead with her on 20 acres of land. Perley is an intrepid soul, and by the time he expresses interest in leaving their isolated existence to go to school, you’re almost used to his normal: living (and sometimes sleeping with) black rat snakes, minding the “humanure” pile, and foraging for dinner when the daily game of “survival dice” doesn’t win a trip to the grocery store. Social services, however, is decidedly more fazed, so when an innocent accident attracts their attention, the family’s imperfect, but preferred, utopia is upended. First-time novelist Madeline ffitch’s background as an environmental activist is evident in Stay and Fight, which deftly pivots from family drama to an encroaching political one that poses even more of a threat to their way of life. If that sounds stress-inducing, it is, but it’s tempered by the characterizations of this unconventional family, particularly the exquisitely endearing Perley, who is uniquely bonded to each member of this motley crew and provides the motivation behind the book’s title. Stay and Fight is an earnest and heart-wrenching celebration of family, and what it means to be free. --Erin Kodicek


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The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

Claire Lombardo’s debut, The Most Fun We Ever Had, is the best kind of family saga—tightly woven with characters who are flawed and human, and who submerge us face-first into the messiness of familial and romantic love. Marilyn and David Sorenson have been inseparable since the 1970s, and even as life has thrown them challenges, their love is the sun around which all else orbits. In 2016, we see their four daughters all suffering from unique dysfunctions—and all fearing that they will never have a relationship as strong as that of their parents, “two people who emanated more love than it seemed like the universe would sanction.” Eldest daughter Wendy has suffered a devastating loss and soothes herself with alcohol and men; Violet is faced with a buried secret—the son she gave away in a closed adoption 16 years ago; Liza, pregnant by a man she’s not in love with, is weighing single parenthood; and Grace—the baby of the family, struggles to launch and is keeping a secret from her family. Told through flashbacks interspersed with the present day, The Most Fun We Ever Had is a beautifully written, intricately detailed look at a Midwestern American family. It’s an up-close examination of life, love, and the inevitable changes wrought by the passage of time that places Lombardo in the company of talented chroniclers of family life such as Celeste Ng and Meg Wolitzer. --Sarah Gelman


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Deep River by Karl Marlantes

To date, Karl Marlantes is best known for his novel Matterhorn, which is a classic in Vietnam War literature. In the masterful Deep River, he is writing about a different place and time—but admirers of Matterhorn will recognize Marlantes’s gift for telling a sweeping, consuming epic through the day-to-day experiences of his characters. Escaping famine and Russian oppression, three Finnish siblings head for the United States in the early 20th century. They each find their way to the Pacific Northwest, a place of astounding natural resources, and there they begin to knit themselves into the mostly-Scandinavian community built up around those resources. There is Ilmari, who becomes a farmer and a blacksmith, and who dreams of starting a church. There is Matti, who becomes a logger. And there is Aino, the sister who may possess the most grit and determination of any of them, and who emerges as a union organizer in a place where work often meant low pay and the constant threat of death or dismemberment. Deep River is a place where you hear the trees thundering to the ground and you can see the 150 pound salmon working their way upstream. It is also a finely-hewn portrait of people’s lives in an era when this country was figuring out what it stood for. You could call Deep River the great Pacific Northwest novel, but it’s even more than that. --Chris Schluep


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The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Based on a real school for boys that closed in Florida in 2011 after more than one hundred years in existence, Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Academy is the kind of institution that purports to rebrand bad boys into good young men. So in theory it should be a good place for Elwood, a young black man who, although he had planned to attend a nearby college, was caught unknowingly riding in a stolen car. But what happens inside Nickel Academy does not match its public image, and Elwood is about to learn that, no matter how idealistic or optimistic he is, his life is taking a very bad turn. He is lucky to meet Turner, who does not share Elwood’s idealism and who helps him to survive Nickel Academy. But what Elwood experiences there will never leave him. Set in the 1960s during Jim Crow, The Nickel Boys is both an enjoyable read and a powerful portrayal of racism and inequality that acts as a lever to pry against our own willingness to ignore it. —Chris Schluep


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