Fight Night by Miriam Toews (2021)
Miriam Toews’ books all cover very similar thematic ground, but each novel finds a new emotional angle to explore her cultural history. Toews was born to Mennonite parents who emigrated from Russia, and her novels fictionalize real-life events both personal and historical. This summer, I finally got the chance to catch up with Toews’ newest novel, Fight Night, and her work remains brutal yet elegant, each phrase placed on the page with clarity. Toews considers her short novels as “one big book,” and Fight Night marks the first time that a young child has become part of the master story.
Fight Night concerns Swiv, a nine-year-old Canadian girl, who lives in Toronto with her mother, Mooshie, and her grandmother, Elvira. Mooshie, pregnant with her second child, is struggling with depression and anger, while Elvira is always boisterous despite her many physical ailments. Swiv’s parental figures are direct opposites of each other; Toews uses these contrasts to explore how this family loves each other through being tough, and how being tough in their own ways acts as their coping mechanism against the world. The book is light on plot and heavy on dialogue, as Swiv gets suspended from school and travels with her grandmother to San Francisco in a series of often-comic misadventures. Much of the detail concerning Mennonites is implied, as Swiv does not fully understand where she comes from. Still, it is remarkable how Toews captures Elvira’s feelings of reconnection with a culture lost long ago while simultaneously refusing to valorize that patriarchal, conservative culture—all through the eyes of a nine-year-old observer.
Recreating a child’s voice, Toews’ writing is punchy, sentences are perfectly designed to appear inelegant, and vulgar humor peppers the narration. As always with her work, turns of phrase sneak up on you, and you pause your barrel through the fast-moving dialogue to drink in a page, paragraph, or even a sentence. Her work feels special because you can tell that she arranges her phrases for maximum impact, knowing that she only has a little bit of time to tell this story but wants to tell as much of it as possible.
Severance by Ling Ma (2018)
Ling Ma takes dystopia, diaspora, and bildungsroman and ties it all together with a delightfully dark and satirical tone in Severance. The book details the life of Candace Chen, a young working professional in New York City, as she carves out her own little niche within the vast metropolis. However, her life and those of everyone around her is violently disrupted when a deadly pandemic sweeps the world, and Candace must deal with the aftermath as her known life shatters.
As many Hoyas return to campus from some sort of academic or career-related summer endeavor—I personally spent the summer in New York working in financial services (classic MSB behavior, I know)—I think Ma’s exploration of the various political, economic, and social systems that govern our society will feel resonant. Candace’s experiences participating in empty consumer culture, faith and religious rituals, and political upheaval provide the reader with a third-person view of the world we live in. Perhaps you’ll crack a smile at Candace’s drab job of overseeing Bible supply chain logistics or find her to be a dark mirror as she takes comfort in rote and routine tasks both pre- and post-pandemic. Or maybe you’ll empathize as she struggles to reconcile her cultural upbringing with America’s social norms. As a second-generation American, corporate sellout, and enjoyer of New York City, I was self-inserting intensely throughout the whole book.
Severance is a deliciously multidimensional narrative that reflects the nebulous moral gray matter that makes up our lives. Read it if you want to probe at the edges of your life philosophy as you enter the Real World.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011)
Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles is merely one entry in the ever-expanding catalog of modern retellings of classic Greek myths. Every medium imaginable has its fair share of entries that have taken some form of inspiration from Greek mythology. However, while she draws from a well-worn well of inspiration, Miller’s masterfully written novel suffers no losses as she breathes new life into the legend of Achilles.
Written from the perspective of his beloved Patroclus, The Song of Achilles is as lyrical as its title suggests. From cover to cover, Patroclus’ narrative voice shines through, timid yet evocative. Every sentence, every word is woven together beautifully, telling a careful and sincere story in a way that only Patroclus can. Through his eyes, Miller paints a vivid picture of a world grounded in the reality of living legends. It feels strange describing anything related to Greek mythology as “grounded in reality,” but Miller is somehow able to paint Patroclus’ world as perfectly normal while retaining the innate whimsy and grandiosity of the original myths.
The true strength of the novel comes in the tragic and poetic love story between Achilles and Patroclus. Through Patroclus’ eyes their love is as boundless as the cosmos. Patroclus is Achilles’ better half, but their partnership is never one-sided. He adores Achilles, and Achilles him. It’s hard to really pinpoint a climax (narratively) in their relationship as every scene between the pair is fiery and new, filled with earnest love unburdened by the fear of the millenia-old fate that looms before them.
The Song of Achilles is raw and breathtaking. A beautiful tale of two star-crossed lovers (eat your heart out, Shakespeare) that will be a wonderful, albeit tear-soaked, addition to any reading list.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney (2017)
Perhaps Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney (2017) this will be controversial for fellow Sally Rooney disciples—but, as of June 11 (according to my Goodreads), my Sally Rooney novel of choice is her 2017 masterpiece Conversations with Friends. It’s better, in my humble opinion, than even her 2019 bestseller Normal People and her latest hit, 2021’s Beautiful World, Where Are You?.
Conversations with Friends is a novel about a four-way love triangle—a love square, dare I say. I would be shocked to encounter individuals who have experienced more dysfunctional and borderline incestuous (?) relationships than Francis, Bobbi, Melissa, and Nick, the story’s protagonists. As ex-girlfriends Francis and Bobbi pursue love affairs with married couple Nick and Melissa, respectively, readers are sucked into the drama and toxicity of Francis’ attempts to conceal her obsession with Nick, Nick’s inability to communicate his emotions with Francis, and the lying and manipulation that they must both undergo to hide the affair from their friends and partners. As a narrator, Francis tells this story in an elegant and tragic way that epitomizes her characterization as a talented (and somewhat unstable) poet. Tied with Rooney’s naturally fast-paced storytelling, Conversations with Friends acts as a portrayal of the unavoidable chaos of entangling love and friendship—one that will surely cause you to raise questions about your own conceptions of relationships, power, and intimacy.
But if you do throw yourself headfirst into this untraditional and tumultuous love story, be warned: This novel is likely to elicit both an intense appreciation of Rooney for her spectacular depiction of the modern-day relationship and a hatred of her for that very same reason.
The Dead Romantics by Ashley Poston (2022)
Brilliantly true to its title, The Dead Romantics tells the story of Florence Day, a “disillusioned millennial ghostwriter” caught in a maelstrom of emotion in the wake of her father’s passing. Tasked with organizing her father’s funeral alongside her eccentric siblings and mother, Florence finds herself treading the unruly waters of grief. But the situation is further complicated when Benji Andor, the beautiful editor who refused to extend Florence’s deadline, arrives on the front steps of her family’s funeral parlor…as a ghost. His unfinished business with Florence is a mystery that entangles the two, challenging their preconceived notions of love and sparking tentative hope in our protagonist’s heart.
The novel’s concept alone is fantastic, but its execution is infused with the genre’s quintessential balance of humor and depth. The Dead Romantics is a carefully threaded story that, despite being a romcom, hollowed me out inside, in turn filling me with a newfound understanding of the fine line between love and loss. While the plot itself is understated, the weight of its words and the lively relationships illustrated are what stuck with me the most, brought out by a deeply authentic protagonist. Florence and Benji’s developing relationship puts forth the idea that love is, at its basis, emotional rather than physical; here are two souls joined by quiet understanding, coexisting as both distinct individuals and seamless counterparts. Even though I teared up reading this book, it was also hilarious and charming. The Dead Romantics is the type of enjoyable, slow-paced read that you remember long after the last page. Poston says it best herself: “It was the answer to a question, soft and subtle, but it was there—the kind of feeling, this hope, that had just been hiding, waiting for some specter to take my hand and dance me across the floorboards. It felt, for a moment in time, like happiness.”
The Locked Tomb Series by Tamsyn Muir
*Note: This was a re-read in preparation for the penultimate volume Nona the Ninth’s imminent release. I have consumed these books before and will consume them again.*
It is hard to distill the greatest books you’ve ever read down to their single pitch-able essence, but Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb Series is, at its simplest, lesbian necromancers in space. The first book, Gideon the Ninth (2019), is a perfect genre blend of science fiction, murder mystery, fantasy, and horror. It is stupidly funny, heartbreakingly genuine, and irascibly clever. There are hauntings, dick jokes, big swords, annoying teenagers, slightly less annoying but far angrier teenagers, and lots of death. It is a story of two young women who have done horrible things to themselves and each other—and nonetheless remain inextricably tied to one another. It is not a romance by any means. There is love, and it is at times all that keeps our dear Gideon and her angry little necromancer Harrowhark going, but it is a twisted all-consuming love that lends itself more to tragedy and horror than romance. Gideon the Ninth is perhaps my favorite book and makes me laugh just as much as it tears a new hole in my heart every time I read it.
If Gideon is a murder mystery adventure with some heavy angst, Muir’s second installment, Harrow the Ninth (2020), is its traumatized older sister. Where Gideon follows the endearingly bumbling, Aviator-wearing, foul-mouthed swordswoman of its name, Harrow follows Harrowhark in the aftermath of an enormous, reality-altering loss. While still darkly funny and highly enjoyable, Harrow is a whole other deranged creature as it plays with extremely unreliable narrators, significant POV switches, falsified memory, and layered story-telling. It is deeply confusing but its pay-off is a work of narrative genius. This use of narrative technique to lay out clues is pure literary art—this is the smartest novel I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Harrow examines trauma, grief, violence, and their effects (both manipulated and natural) on the conscious and subconscious mind. It is about God (his name is John, and he likes ginger biscuits), immortality, betrayal, and the vengeful ghosts of nine resurrected planets. It is complex and profane and ghastly and superb.
The third installment of the series, Nona the Ninth, arrives on shelves Sept. 13. I am foaming at the mouth.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller (2019)
Content warning: This book contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault.
“My pain was never more valuable than his potential.”
In 2016, a woman under the alias Emily Doe published her victim impact statement on Buzzfeed, which she had previously read in court to her attacker, Brock Turner.
Now, speaking as Chanel Miller, she recounts the aftermath of Turner’s assault, from waking up in the hospital to the months-long legal process to the virality of her victim impact statement. In this powerful, devastatingly beautiful memoir, Miller depicts the realities of navigating the world as a survivor of sexual assault, describing the complexities of her healing process and how the American legal system failed her.
Know My Name is, undoubtedly, an incredibly difficult read. Miller does not shy away from the horrific details of both Turner’s assault and the aftermath, including outsiders asking invasive questions and the plentiful internal turmoil. Much of her struggle is depicted through a conflict of two identities: Emily and Chanel, situated as two different women who navigate their trauma because of a single event. Miller not only explores the duality of these women, but also the process of reclaiming her own identity in private and in public.
In describing her experiences, Miller’s prose can only be characterized as haunting. The core of this book’s beauty is Miller’s impeccable storytelling skills, a sure reminder that it is not our experiences that define us, but rather what we choose to make of them.
Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop by Marc Myers (2016)
I cringe at leaning into my “rock bro” persona but it was either this book or one of many by Kurt Vonnegut I read this summer, and I figured y’all have had enough white men recommend you Vonnegut that you don’t need me.
Born out of Marc Myers’ Wall Street Journal column, Anatomy of a Song walks us through the history of songs that changed popular music, some very familiar like Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today” and Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and some not as well known like The Young Rascals’ “Groovin’” and Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come.” For music history buffs, or people who just love music, this is an excellent read. Each chapter is told through transcribed interviews with producers and artists. I find that the oral histories are ideal for these kinds of stories: easy to get through while still conveying vast amounts of information. While Myers builds the context around each song, every chapter elevates the voices of those directly involved with its production.
And this book does its due diligence in acknowledging the artists critical to the development of the genre who don’t often get highlighted, particularly Black artists in the U.S. who built the foundation of rock music; instead of featuring The Beatles, the first chapter is about Lloyd Price. Showcasing Black artists who developed these popular rhythms and sounds should be a bare minimum, but more often than not I’ve found “rock bros” obsessed with rock music who rarely acknowledge where that music comes from.
I definitely recommend this book, and utilizing its incredible built-in playlist as a guide through music history.