The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

One of my recent favorites. Kind of like a female Joyce at times, not just in Irishness but in psychology. A book about two people falling in love–we learn their names one at a time, late in the book. There’s almost no explaining and no sentimentality. There’s sex but it’s handled deftly. Learning his story, through an extended bit where we hear his voice, exactly as he speaks it to her, is thrilling. And it manages a happy ending that’s not in the way you’d expect. Once you get in the rhythm of the voice it’s hard to stop.

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

Reading these stories, it’s kind of hard to believe they weren’t written and originally published as a single collection, they all go together so nicely There are recurring themes and settings and characters, a kind of grit and hardness, sophisticated writing about unsophisticated things (rehab; laundromats). But it never feels mismatched. Not a word out of place. Unforgettable images. So many things happen in these stories, and the world in which they’re set is richly populated.

Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet

Sometimes I read a book whereI have the sense that you’re not really supposed to take it literally, but I’m not really sure how you are supposed to take it. I much prefer books that make sense on both levels.

A young mother and her daughter are on the run from her crazy, politically ambitious husband. She, for a time, heard voices, and finds herself in a community of people who become a sort of family, who also heard them. It doesn’t quite scan to me on the literal level and I never fully connected with it on other levels.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Memoir about becoming, and being, a woman scientist, and about a non-romantic relationship with a research partner — it’s almost devoid of explicit reflection, replacing it with interludes of seemingly objective but thematically related information about plants and how they work.

I was most interested in her descriptions of interactions with other people, and felt that sometimes it backed away right when it shouldn’t have. Similarly the insertion of a segment about her bipolar disorder–it was abrupt, and I thought the book either should have engaged with it or left it out.

High Dive by Jonathan Lee

I liked this multi-POV book about an IRA attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher. I suspect it survived the feeling of cliche inherent in showing both sides like that by being very spare in telling you what it means, and by leaving plenty of tendrils that aren’t tied up neatly. (The diving motif, for example). And by giving us not just hotel worker and terrorist, but a father and daughter, with the terrorist who lives with his mother.

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

“Gay American in Bulgaria” doesn’t really capture it. I see it as a story about being unable to turn your back on something you know is bad for you. Beautifully written, I was never aware of a feeling that any of it was engineered, and the use of the Bulgarian language was handled gracefully. It felt a bit slow at times, but it’s a thought book, not an action book.

The Nix by Nathan Hill

A book that turns out to be about itself. . .  entertaining, for sure, but a bit schizophrenic. Parts are fascinating and moving, but at other times it seems to work in intentional caricature that’s basically a parody. It felt like the book couldn’t decide what kind of book it was. It did tie together, with the necessary plot twists and whatnot, but I felt like there were too many strands. It might have benefitted from trimming out the details or points of view of Laura Potsdam, for instance, or Ponage, and Elfscape–they were there for reasons, but I think they ultimately distracted from the richer material of Samuel and Bethany and Bishop, from Faye, who was the center of the book. Their sections felt shallow, where during the sections about the other characters, I was riveted.