Why did I read this? Tommy Orange’s review in the New York Times, titled “A Comic Coming-of-Age Novel Laced With Social Commentary,” along with a whole lot of enthusiastic buzz, prompted me to put this on my list.

What is it about? Everywhere You Don’t Belong begins in South Shore Chicago, part of Chicago’s South Side—a place burdened by the gangs and the violence that dominates the news, yes, but also the home of thousands of families just living their lives, going to work, going to school. The narrator of Everywhere is Claude, a child when we meet him, being raised by his grandmother. Claude is sort of an every-child; he doesn’t have any obvious or exceptional talents, nor is he particularly hard-working, or ambitious, or quick-thinking, or socially adept. His grandmother reassures him that he’s special, but she can’t say exactly how. Someday we’ll figure that out, she tells him. While Claude may be one of the sweetest protagonists in fiction, with buckets of kindness and empathy and loyalty, he’s mainly just an average kid—the “spectacular average,” as Bump calls him in an essay he wrote about the book.

We follow Claude as he grows from child to teen, keeping clear of the gangs, but not unscathed by violence. We follow him as he grows from teen to young adult, studying journalism at the University of Missouri, one of only two Black students working on the University newspaper, feeling pressure from faculty to be a crusader, pressure from the other Black student to reject pigeonholing. We follow him as he falls in love, first in grade-school, with his best friend Bubbly, a hilariously profane 9-year-old, and then again as a teen, with his best friend Janice, savvier than he is, dating a football player, struggling in her own way to figure out where she belongs.

Would I recommend it? I loved this book. I loved Bump’s way with dialogue—firecracker quick, often unexpected. I loved the book’s humor, which is wry, affectionate, and barbed, finding absurdity in even the worst situations. I was gripped by the way Bump put those worst situations on the page—and there are several of them, some laced with fear, some with sorrow. There is no way a privileged white woman can ever really know how it feels to be a Black man under the scrutiny of a police officer, just for carrying a duffel bag into a taco stand, let alone how it feels to be a Black man being screamed at by a half-dozen drunk white men with Confederate flags on their trucks, but Bump had me both terrified and enraged—and then, on the next page, he would make me laugh.

It’s impossible not to root for Claude, and Bump doesn’t deprive the reader of the satisfaction inherent in seeing an underdog win. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that after trying on for size many places he doesn’t belong, Claude ultimately lands exactly where he does belong. In the end, this is a book about love in its many forms, and I loved that, too.

Although Bump, like Claude, grew up on Euclid Avenue, although Bump, like Claude, studied journalism at the University of Missouri, this is not an autobiographical book. For one thing, Bump is clearly the kind of over-achiever that Claude is not. By the time Everywhere You Don’t Belong was published, he had already completed the first draft of his next book, which will be called The New Naturals, and is “about an underground group of black academics who start a utopian society in New England.” Another must-read, I’d be willing to bet now.

Why did I read this? Early in the pandemic, I began to read Yaa Gyasi’s much-lauded debut novel, Homegoing, but at that moment I couldn’t cope with the suffering of the characters. So I set it aside. I’ll go back to it at some point. This, her second novel, has also been widely praised (it appeared on many year-end “best of” lists), and was clearly very different than Homegoing: intimate, rather than epic; more cerebral than historical.

What is it about? Told in the first person, Transcendental Kingdom is the story of a young neuroscientist named Gifty, born to Ghanaian parents, raised in Alabama. As a child, Gifty was a devout Evangelical Christian, determined to simultaneously win God’s favor and prove racists wrong by being good, by being perfect, by being the best. When her beloved older brother died of a drug overdose and her mother fell into deep depression, Gifty—grieving, guilty, unmoored—was shipped off to live with her aunt in Ghana. Now, as an adult, cocooned in her Stanford lab, Gifty keeps human relationships at arm’s length, looking for answers in science, studying the neurological circuits related to addiction and depression.

Would I recommend it? This is a quietly gripping book, deeply personal in its voice, that explores thorny issues in a way that is both emotional and thoughtful. I expect to be thinking about for a long time. In Gifty, Gyasi has created a character who is deeply wounded, whose brains and talent are no protection against loss, and who bristles and retreats when threatened—whether the threat is intimacy, or thoughts she cannot control, or the renewal of grief. As a narrator, Gifty is simultaneously analytic and unreliable, determined to understand and control, yet unable to see herself clearly.

Loss is multidimensional and omnipresent in this novel. Most literally, Gifty loses her brother to addiction. She loses her mother to episodes of paralyzing depression. She loses her father, who moves back to Ghana when she is a toddler. She loses her own Ghanaian identity, forgetting her parents’ language, becoming much more American than Ghanaian. But perhaps most centrally, she loses her confidence in faith, turning to science. Thus, a central theme of the book, and one that is beautifully expressed, is the tension between faith and science, with neither offering the clear answers Gifty seeks:

“The fact that I can locate the part of the brain where memory is stored only answers questions of where and perhaps even how. It does little to answer the why. I was always, I am ever, unnerved… This is something I would never say in a lecture or a presentation or, God forbid, a paper, but, at a certain point, science fails. Questions become guesses become philosophical ideas about how something should probably, maybe, be.”

I loved the way Gyasi writes about this tension, pivoting between the poetic, mighty language of faith and the specific, technical language of science. Gifty is fluent in both languages, with her language of faith sometimes off-putting to her science-bound friends, and her language of science alien to her deeply religious mother. To write the book, Gyasi had to learn more of the language of science, and, indeed, the idea of the book took shape when she visited a close friend who is a neuroscientist at Stanford, spending time in her lab, trying to gain a better understanding of her work. Gyasi was already, though, fluent in the language of religion, with the book also taking shape in that context. Here is what she had to say in a New York Times interview:

“I grew up Pentecostal and left the church when I was a teenager because I realized that my predominantly white church in Alabama, part of the religious right, was itself a weapon formed against me and the people I loved and, not to put too fine a point on it, justice and truth. Leaving was such a profoundly lonely and confusing experience that I longed for literature that could help me grasp it, literature that took faith seriously, but there isn’t much literary fiction that deals with evangelicalism.”

This perspective permeates the book. Through Gifty’s voice, Gyasi captures both the joy and reassurance of deep faith as well as the way it can metastasize into intolerance and closed-mindedness:

“When Pastor John preached against the ways of the world, he was talking about drugs and alcohol and sex, yes, but he was also asking our church to protect itself against a kind of progressivism that for years now had been encroaching. I don’t mean progressive in a political sense, though that was certainly a part of it. I mean progress in the sense of the natural way in which learning something new requires getting rid of something old, like how discovering that the world is round means that you can no longer hang on to the idea that you might one day fall off the edge of the Earth. And now that you have learned that something you thought was true was never true at all, every idea that you hold firm comes into question. If the Earth is round, then is God real? Literalism is helpful in the fight against change.”

Another perspective that permeates the book, also drawn from Gyasi’s own life, is the dislocating experience of being an African in the American South, facing racism as much as any Black American would, but with an outsider’s eye. Gyasi’s description of Gifty’s father, an ebullient man well over six feet tall who tried to make himself invisible in America, may stick with me for a very long time. Race is not the central focus of Transcendent Kingdom, but it is part of the fabric of Gifty’s life, shaping who she is and how she responds to the world, contributing to her determination to succeed and excel at all costs. It is the unavoidable context, adding another layer of meaning and emotion to the story.

So back to the question I’ve been asking in these posts: Would I recommend Transcendental Kingdom? Yes, clearly I would, to anyone who looks to fiction to excavate complexity, to anyone interested in distinctive new literary voices. But with one caveat: I hated the ending of this book. To me, the way Gyasi chose to close the book was disappointingly anti-climactic. So if you read this book, I recommend tearing off the last chapter and sticking it a drawer, reading it only after you’ve made up your mind about the rest of this otherwise profound and moving novel.

(Full title: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness)

Why did I read this? A college-bound daughter of a friend plans to study marine biology, and I am so envious. If I could live my life over again, maybe I would have been another Jacques Cousteau, living my life on boats and in scuba gear, learning about all the fascinating critters that live in the oceans. Except for the fact that I’m not a great swimmer, and the fact that being underwater terrifies me, and the fact that I’m not wild about touching slimy things, it would have been great! On second thought, maybe visiting aquariums is the better choice for me. At any rate, a few weeks ago I watched the startling and beautiful film My Octopus Teacher, and it prompted to me to finally reach for this book, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2016 and had been languishing on my someday-read list for quite a while.

What is it about? Sy Montgomery is a naturalist and writer who has made her living by immersing herself with specific animals or in specific environments and then writing about them. The Soul of an Octopus chronicles the time she spent observing the octopuses at the New England Aquarium in Boston, and learning to dive so she could observe octopuses in the wild. It blends natural history with a sentimental account of the creatures, human as well as tentacled, that she met along the way.

Would I recommend it? Octopuses (yes, that’s the plural) are astonishing creatures. They are intelligent, with the ability to solve puzzles, use tools, remember individual humans, and play. They have neurons distributed in their arms, which means their arms can perceive (smell, taste, feel) and make decisions on their own. They have skin that instantaneously changes color and texture to match their environment, giving them exceptional camouflage. They can fit into unbelievably tiny spaces, with the ability to flatten and compress everything except their beaks and eyes. They have three hearts, and their blood is blue.

This book, overflowing with Montgomery’s enthusiasm and wonder, provides not just an excuse to learn about octopuses, but an excuse to contemplate the extraordinary diversity of both sea life and human life. It is a warm-hearted hug of a book, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I think it probably was good for my health, bringing down my blood pressure each time I entered Montgomery’s world. If you like your science books to stick to the facts, if you sniff at anthropomorphizing animals, if you object to speculation about whether the octopus has a soul, you will not like this book. But if you stand at fish tanks wondering what the fish are thinking about, if you once yearned to meet Flipper, if you find spiritual sustenance in the natural world, you’ll enjoy this book.

Why did I read this? Was it (a) because I remember what a best-seller it was, and regretted not reading it when everyone was raving about it? Or was it (b) because I keep forgetting that best-selling status can be entirely manufactured by great marketing and has little to do with whether I’ll like a book? Or was it perhaps (c) because I’m a glutton for punishment? Or, (d) all of the above? (See also: Where the Crawdads Sing.)

What is it about? Baseball. College baseball. College baseball at a liberal arts college in the Midwest. The boys who play college baseball at a liberal arts college in the Midwest. The father and daughter who fall in love with the boys who play baseball at a liberal arts college in the Midwest.

Would I recommend it? Good grief, no. And not because it’s about baseball. I like baseball. And Harbach’s play-by-plays of the games in the book are as good as sports writing gets. What I don’t like are books that are waaaaay too long. The pace of The Art of Fielding is glacial, with Harbach spelling out in glorious detail every thought-process a character has, every room they enter. There is very good writing here, but it’s lost in an avalanche of every paragraph it crossed his mind to write. And this flood of writing is overstuffed with literary allusions and ersatz philosophy. A writer-friend once described to me her dislike of writers who are show-offy, who prioritize the brilliance of their own writing over the needs of the story. Harbach is five hundred pages of show-offy. Here is an example of the kind of descriptions that drag down the book, excerpted by one of the few negative reviews of the book (a review with which I entirely agree):

“The chair was sturdy and comfortable, suitably presidential … but sometimes Affenlight pined for a sleek modern one, with casters and a medial axis on which you could spin. Having shuffled the big chair to the window, he leaned his forehead against the glass, which felt cold despite the sunlight, and dragged his neatly trimmed nails across the exposed portion of the screen, producing a scratchy metallic sound. The word for what a chair should do had been escaping him: swivel. Melville had once called America a seat of snivelization; what Affenlight wanted was a seat of swivelization.”

Worse, though, is how, in 2021, the book reeks of thoughtless attitudes towards women, towards gay people, and towards imbalances of sexual power. Although it was published only a decade ago, in 2011, much of it feels archaic and toxic. There are women who are characterized mainly in terms of the greatness of their legs; there is catcalling experienced as amusing; there are offhand thoughts (meant to be funny?) such as “she’d never really been bulimic, but it was one of those things a girl just knew how to do.” Then there is a major character, a gay student named Owen Dunne, who, in the words of same lonely negative review, is a “caricature of gay archness.” Meanwhile, a friend participates in offensive banter, thinking (also meant to be funny?), “nothing like some casual homophobia to win over a crowd.”

And then, spoiler alert, a central part of the plot is a love affair between the 20-year-old Owen and the 60-year-old college president, Guert Affenlight, with Affenlight resentful that no one would think twice if he had an affair with a woman who was a student at the college, and that it’s only the same-sex nature of the relationship that requires secrecy.

Now, to be fair, the trustees of the college eventually do point out that sexual relationships between college faculty and students are a violation of the school’s code of ethics, but they confront Affenlight as if they’d discovered him parked illegally. The problem is that he violated the rules; no more. And no one else seems to be bothered. Had any of the characters struggled with the ethics, had the book created tension between that ethical reservations and believable mutual attraction, I might have felt differently. But why Owen is attracted to Affenlight is never clear. Meanwhile, Owen’s teammates take the affair in stride; they think Affenlight is a great guy. Affenlight’s daughter is mostly upset that she didn’t know her father was gay. And Affenlight himself worries much more about how he could possibly be attractive to a kid forty-years younger than whether it might be, oh, let’s say, WRONG to sleep with a student.

In browsing contemporaneous reviews of the book, they are consistently charmed by the Affenlight-Owen romance. Ten years ago, would I, too, have seen it as charming rather than troublesome? Ten years ago, would I have agreed with the New York Times’ critics that this was one of the ten best books of that year? Ten years ago seems like yesterday, but maybe my eyes weren’t nearly as open as I thought they were. But even a decade ago, I can’t imagine I would have enjoyed this over-written book, and I can’t imagine not being puzzled by the rave reviews.

Why did I read this? Crime novels usually aren’t my thing, but occasionally they surprise me. Attica Locke’s Bluebird Bluebird, for example, was a book group choice I almost skipped, then was very glad I read. So when this book, the 2016 winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, blurbed as “darkly comic” and “fiendishly hilarious,” popped up as an immediately available audiobook at my library, I decided to give it a go.

What’s it about? This book is about what happens when a mess on the floor can’t be cleaned up. Literally. Igniting the plot, 50-something grandmother Maureen has just killed an intruder. The murder weapon was a religious souvenir (“she flaked him with the holy stone”), and the victim is lying on her kitchen floor. She calls her son, local crime boss Jimmy Phelan, who enlists sad-sack alcoholic Tony Cusack to clean up the mess. Getting rid of a body is one thing, but hiding a murder is another, even if the murder is an accident, and the secret oozes out, gradually messing up the lives of everyone connected—prostitute Georgie, the victim’s girlfriend, who tries to exit prostitution by joining a religious cult; Ryan, Tony’s drug-dealing teenage son, besotted with his first girlfriend; and Tony’s neighbor Tara, whose slippery aim in life seems to be finding ways to coerce people into doing what she wants—whether that’s sharing her bed or committing a crime.

Would I recommend it? OK, this is quite a book. Darkly comic? Yessiree. The writing is flashy and whip-smart, almost improvisatory in feel. There were bits, mostly in the form of fabulously cutting dialogue, peppered with creative obscenities, that had me laughing out loud. The characters, most of them, are simultaneously cinematic stereotypes and flawed, fleshy, human beings, demanding our sympathy even as we watch them do vile and criminal things.

The book is dark in other ways as well. The version of Cork’s underbelly that McInerney splashes on her pages is a world of dilapidated housing estates under gray skies, of poverty and alcoholism, and of no good choices. McInerney’s characters do not expect happy endings, nor does McInerney grant them any. She does, though, offer a glimmer of hope at the end of the novel—which opens the door for a sequel, which she wrote, and which also got good reviews.

I listened to the audio, and I’m torn about whether I’d recommend that. On the plus side, the narrator (Irish actress Shelley Atkinson) narrates with full-on, street-smart Irish inflection, performing the characters with energy and drama, giving each character a specific and recognizable voice. It’s almost like listening to a radio drama. On the down side, wow, does Atkinson speak fast. I ended up slowing down the pace, and I still had some trouble keeping the characters straight, tracking who was saying what.

As for the book as a whole, notwithstanding everything I said above, I wouldn’t recommend The Glorious Heresies to anyone (like me) who can’t stomach too much violence in fiction. The murder that sets the plot in motion is off-stage, but there’s quite a bit of violence that is front-and-center, and not just cartoonish bang-bang-you’re-dead violence, but violence that channels hate and cruelty, that revels in the bloody detail. More than once, I skipped ahead, opting to lose a bit of the plot in order to avoid having nightmares, and I will not be reading the sequel.

Why did I read this? Tokyo Ueno Station won the 2020 National Book Award for translated literature.

What is it about? When we meet the narrator, Kazu, he is a ghost wandering through Tokyo’s Ueno Park, observing visitors, overhearing snatches of conversation, and remembering his life. Ueno Park, if you haven’t been there, is in the middle of Tokyo. On its 13-acre grounds are museums, shrines, an enormous pond, and Tokyo’s Zoo. It is a gathering place. A place for leisure. A place for protests. A thoroughfare: to the east is the busy Ueno Station, to the west is Tokyo University. It is also a place where many of Tokyo’s homeless congregate and live, periodically evicted by the authorities. As the novel unfolds, we learn that Kazu spent the final years of his life as one of the park’s homeless residents, and we hear the story of his life—a hard life, with years as a construction worker living far from his wife and family, a life burdened with unbearable losses.

Would I recommend it? Tokyo Ueno Station reads like a deeply melancholy dream-state, blurring the lines between the past and present, ricocheting from memory to memory. It has much to say, mostly between the lines, about how easy it is to ignore those who fall through the cracks, those we don’t want to see. This is a human universal; Japan is not the only country with gaping holes in its social safety net. But perhaps in Japan the homeless are even more like ghosts, even more invisible. “Japan is so clean and there is also this clean image,” the author, Yu Miri, said in an interview in the New York Times. “But there is also this feeling of not letting people see dirty or ‘unacceptable’ things.”

Reading Tokyo Ueno Station on the heels of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, I was also struck by how the experience of time is a preoccupation of both novels. In Ozeki, people are “time beings”—their identity defined by where they sit in time, with that identity changing as time flows. We are different time beings today than we were yesterday, or were last year, or will be a year from now. In Ozeki, Nao and her father see death as stepping out of time, leaving one’s connection to time behind. In this novel, Kazu similarly struggles to understand his relationship to time, but he finds no answers, and is left only with questions: “Time had slowed to a sluggish crawl. I walked faster, but each step plunged me deeper into the depths of stillness. If time could pass so slowly that its passage was imperceptible, then—is death where time stops and the self is left all alone in this space? Is death where space and the self are erased and only time continues?”

The novel also has something to say about fate, or luck. Kazu tells us so, bluntly, right from the start, “I had no luck.” It’s true. He was born the same year as the emperor; yet their lives could not be more different. The emperor, Kazu thinks, had “a life that had never known struggle, envy or aimlessness, one that had lived the same 73 years as I had.” His son was born on the same day as the emperor’s son, and his fate, too, was vastly different. And with each twist of fate, Kazu finds himself on the losing side, enduring loss after loss, helpless in the face of random catastrophes.

Perhaps this is why I did not love the novel. Perhaps it was my mood when I read it, or perhaps I shouldn’t have read it right have reading the (also) intensely sad Hamnet, but this was a novel that, for me, stayed at arm’s length. As one reviewer pointed out, there are very few moments of joy in Tokyo Ueno Station, few moments of humor to leaven the sadness. The novel is Kazu’s dirge, his lament for his life, sung while in limbo, occasionally interrupted by his glimpses into other people’s lives, other people who seem to occupy an entirely different space in life, space with room for the kinds of ordinary and banal conversations people have while walking through a park.

All that said, for anyone who wants literature to make connections between the otherwise unconnected, to make readers notice things they may not have noticed before, to orchestrate words that conjure images and emotions with specificity and strength, to create a world with prose that is both distinctive and lyrical, Tokyo Ueno Station more than ticks those boxes. Kazu in all three of his forms—struggling to care for his family, homeless in Ueno Park, and ceaselessly wandering ghost—is now haunting my thoughts. This wasn’t a book that I loved, but it certainly deserves its place on the shelf.

Why did I read this? Both the New York Times and the Washington Post put Hamnet in their top ten books of 2020. The Library Journal and the Guardian listed it among the best books of the year. It was long-listed for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and it won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction. How could I not read it?

What is it about? The documentary paper trail of William Shakespeare’s life is sparse. But a few things are known: He married Anne Hathaway in 1582. He was 18, she was 26, and she may have already been pregnant with their first child, Susanna. Three years later, in 1585, they had twins—Judith and Hamnet. In 1596, Hamnet died. He was 11 years old. The cause of death is unrecorded. Two years later, in 1587, Shakespeare bought the second largest house in the village for his wife and two surviving children. When Shakespeare moved to London is unknown, but records suggest that he was well-established there by 1592. When Hamlet was written is also unknown, but by 1603, it had been performed in several places.

Around this slim skeleton, O’Farrell spins the story of Hamnet’s life and death, the marriage of his parents, and their grief. Her imagination was fired by the obvious similarity between “Hamnet” and “Hamlet”—names which were interchangeable in 16th century parish records—and by her sense that Hamlet feels like an unusually personal play, “underpinned by a great weight of grief.” Yet histories and biographies of Shakespeare usually mention Hamnet’s death only briefly, as a sterile fact, accompanied by the horrific child mortality rates of the time, as if children’s deaths were so frequent they were barely worth mentioning. O’Farrell wondered if Shakespeare grieved the loss of his 11-year-old son. She could not imagine that he did not.

O’Farrell was also motivated by historians’ frequent portrayal of Anne Hathaway as an aging spinster who trapped the young William into an unhappy marriage, despite a complete lack of evidence for that narrative. She also noticed that, in his will, Anne Hathaway’s father referred to her not as Anne, but as Agnes, likely pronounced “ah-nyess.” Who more likely to know her true name than her father? And if historians had carelessly used an abbreviated name for her, rather than her birth name, what else had they gotten wrong? Instead of wondering why Shakespeare married Anne, O’Farrell wondered why Anne married him, an 18-year-old boy. What if, O’Farrell explores in Hamnet, Agnes and William married for love?

Would I recommend it? Hamnet is beautifully written and imagined. O’Farrell’s use of language, her use of metaphor and imagery to capture feeling and atmosphere, is sometimes so pitch-perfect I had to stop and reread a sentence. Here, for example, she describes what Shakespeare, as a young Latin tutor, sees when he looks at his classroom: “They look toward him, plants turning to the sun. He smiles at their soft, unformed faces, pale as unrisen dough in the light from the window. He pretends not to see that the younger brother is being poked under the table with a peeled stick, that the elder has filled his slate with a pattern of repeated loops.” And here, she describes how Agnes observes her daughter transforming from child to adult: “Agnes watches the child drop from her younger daughter, as a cloak from a shoulder. She is taller, slender as a willow strip, her figure filling out her gowns. She loses the urge to skip, to move quickly, deftly, to skitter across a room or a yard; she acquires the freighted tread of womanhood.” Plants seeking the sun, unrisen dough, cloaks slipping, willow strips. Metaphors that not only communicate volumes, but that are rooted in objects and experiences familiar to the 16th century.

Then there is O’Farrell’s empathy, her ability to get beneath the skin of her characters and bring the reader with her. Most centrally, this is a book about a family’s grief when a child dies. In O’Farrell’s story, Hamnet’s mother and father and siblings experience grief differently, each with their own reasons for guilt and for anger, each with their own ways of expressing that guilt and anger, often mystifying to others, but so recognizable, so true to the human experience. And O’Farrell expresses that grief even in the structure of her prose; in the days and months immediately following Hamnet’s death, the prose is as fractured as the family’s hearts, skipping from person to person in brief snapshots. “What is the word,” Hamnet’s twin sister Judith asks in one of these tiny moments, “for someone who is a twin but is no longer a twin?” There is no word.

This, though, is why Hamnet may not be a book for everyone. O’Farrell captures the many colors of grief so well that the book is often painful, heart-rending reading. Perhaps a reader in the midst of fresh grief at losing a child would find Hamnet comforting, a reminder that even the most devastating of human losses are shared by many, across both time and space. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it would be turning the knife, cutting way too close to the core. I have no children, yet more than once I had to put the book down, shaking off its sorrows with a walk in the sun or a load of laundry.

O’Farrell provides other reasons to either love Hamnet or to find it tough going. For instance, she never, not once, used William Shakespeare’s name. He is “the glover’s son,” or “the children’s father,” or “her husband”—usually identified through his relationship with others. In interviews, O’Farrell says that this was not really a choice, but rather the only way she could write. “It wasn’t something I necessarily planned,” she has said. “It just became impossible to write that name in a fictional sentence: ‘William Shakespeare came down the stairs and helped himself to breakfast.’ Instantly, I just felt like a total idiot. And if I’m getting pulled out of the narrative here, I can’t possibly expect readers not to feel the same.” And it is a testament to her writing skills that this is never confusing, never feels awkward; on the contrary, it adds to poetic rhythm of the book. (In contrast to Wolf Hall, where Hilary Mantel’s avoidance of Cromwell’s name was a big stumbling block for me.)

Another challenging aspect of the book is the way O’Farrell structures the story. It is not sequential. In the first chapter, Hamnet is dead, being prepared for his funeral, and we are dropped straight into Agnes’ awful, shattering grief. From there, chapters alternately move us through the courtship of Agnes and the glover’s son, Hamnet’s illness and death, and finally the aftermath—not in a linear order, but in a way that puts the moment of Hamnet’s death in the center, as a divider between before and after. Interspersed in the story are occasional departures into an even more omniscient narrator, one with the cadence of a bard, one who shares myths, or who has an owl’s-eye view of the village, or who follows a flea carrying plague from a distant trading ship. For the reader, this creates an experience of circling the story, almost literally, while zooming in and out and up and down. On the whole, I found it marvelous, entrancing; at times, however, my eyes narrowed in a what-the-hell-is-happening kind of way.

O’Farrell’s development of Agnes may also divide readers. In Hamnet, Agnes is something of an outsider to her own family—the odd one, the girl who prefers the company of her hawk, who prefers spending time in the forest to time at home, who is unconventional in ways that fuel gossip. As an adult, Agnes is a healer, expert in using plants to heal. She is also a seer; she can intuit a person’s heart through the touch of their hand, and she can predict the future. O’Farrell uses Agnes’ power to shape and define her grief; it is one of the cruelest agonies of the book that the seer did not foresee her son’s death, that the healer could not heal him when he fell ill.

O’Farrell also uses Agnes’ powers to explain what she saw in Shakespeare, why she was drawn to him:

“When she had taken his hand that day, the first time she had met him, she had felt—what? Something of which she had never known the like. Something she would never have expected to find in the hand of a clean-booted grammar-school boy from town. It was far-reaching: this much she knew. It had layers and strata, like a landscape. There were spaces and vacancies, dense patches, underground caves, rises and descents. There wasn’t enough time for her to get a sense of it all—it was too big, too complex. It eluded her, mostly. She knew there was more of it than she could grasp, that it was bigger than both of them. A sense, too, that something was tethering him, holding him back; there was a tie somewhere, a bond, that needed to be loosened or broken, before he could fully inhabit this landscape, before he could take command.”

I loved the idea of Agnes as unconventional, loved the idea of Agnes as an herbalist, someone who knows all there is to know about the healing properties of plants. Loved the idea that Agnes Hathaway and William Shakespeare were drawn to one another because they did not see the world as others did, because they had desires and ambitions and talents beyond the narrow expectations of their families. I did not love the idea of Agnes as having some sort of supernatural foresight. This is where O’Farrell lost me. As a reader, I was fully invested in the idea that Hamnet was telling a story that could have been, that was connecting the dots between the widely-spaced facts of Shakespeare’s life in a way that was plausible as well as moving. Giving Agnes too much that was magical undercut that plausibility.

For me, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Hamnet is how deeply thoughtful it is. The story of Hamnet has haunted O’Farrell since her university days, she has said, and she set out to honor the memory of a forgotten boy whose influence may survive in the plays and poetry his father left behind. In so doing, she gave her Agnes the agency denied her by the misogynist myths. She also gave her Agnes the expertise on herbs and falconry on display in Hamlet, making Agnes the source of at least some portion of Shakespeare’s wide-ranging knowledge, and thus granting her an imprint on his work. And she created a William Shakespeare who adored his wife but who could never be happy as a village glover, a Shakespeare who coped with grief the only way he knew. With his words.

Then, to make her story feel as authentic as possible, O’Farrell revised her drafts with an OED at her side, to make sure she wasn’t using anachronisms in vocabulary; she planted her own Elizabethan physic garden; and she learned how to fly a hawk. The result is a beautiful, poetic, and immersive book, as well as a book that makes me want to read a biography of Shakespeare. But I can’t. Because no biography of Shakespeare will tell the tale that O’Farrell tells in Hamnet, and that’s the tale I’d like to believe.

Why did I read this? There’s something about browsing the shelves of a public library, scanning the spines, waiting until your eye rests on a title, one that whispers to you, compelling your hand to reach for it, to flip through the pages, to take it home with you. I miss that. Electronic browsing just isn’t the same. But I browse anyway, paging through lists of available books, waiting for one to spark and flicker and say, read me! That’s what happened here. A vaguely familiar title, an author I’ve never read, a couple serious award shortlists, and, click, borrowed.

What’s it about? Nao is a sixteen-year old Japanese girl. She grew up in Silicon Valley, thanks to a father surfing the crest of the tech bubble with a plum job. When the job evaporated, along with the stock options, the family moved back to a cramped apartment in Toyko, and Nao found herself dropped into a Japanese school, bewildered and angry and, soon, brutally bullied as an outsider. Nao plans to commit suicide, but before she does, she has one task she is intent on completing: writing the story of her great-grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun. Jiko is not just any Buddhist nun, but a Buddhist nun who is 104-years old and who was a feminist and anarchist in her youth.

On the other side of the Pacific, Ruth is a novelist who lives on a sparsely populated Canadian island north of Vancouver, along with her husband and a cat. Ruth is struggling, paralyzed, blocked, unable to make progress on the memoir she is writing, when she finds a scuffed freezer bag on the beach, covered with barnacles. Inside is a bright red Hello Kitty lunch box, and inside the lunch box, a package of letters, a wristwatch, a slim composition book, and a diary. Nao’s diary.

A Tale for the Time Being moves the reader back and forth between Ruth and Nao. As Ruth reads the diary, she becomes obsessed with finding Nao and helping her, often forgetting that Nao wrote her diary long before Ruth found it, and before the devastating 2011 tsunami that likely cast it into the ocean and set it on its journey across the Pacific to the Canadian shore.

Would I recommend it? I loved this book. I shouldn’t have. It has elements of magical realism and the supernatural, including ghosts, mysterious crows, and dreams that change the course of reality: not usually my taste. It also has more issues and topics and themes than should comfortably fit in a single novel: something I’d ordinarily flag as a desperate cry for an edit, a paring down. Reviewers often describe this book as “layered,” which is apt, but almost inadequate for how many ideas and characters and events are packed into its pages.

Time is a central preoccupation of the novel, flagged by the book’s title, illuminated by Nao in her diary. “A time being,” writes Nao (whose very name places her at an ephemeral moment in time), “is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.” By reading her diary, Ruth experiences Nao’s present, but at a time far in Nao’s future—if she has a future. Ruth does not know, nor does the reader. The magical parts of the novel go further, treating time as origami, something that can be folded back upon itself. Nao, through her diary, touches the future; Ruth, through her dreams, touches the past.

In addition to contemplating time and what it means to live in the present, the novel explores the meaning of suicide (intended by Nao, attempted by Nao’s father, and committed by Nao’s kamikaze great uncle); the impermanence of the world; the multiple ways people hide their truths from those they love; the way truths revealed can change our view of the past; technology as both threat and savior; the nature of bullying; and how easily unhappiness can metastasize into violence. It digresses into explanations of ocean gyres, the biology of barnacles, quantum theory, species of crows, Zen Buddhism, and the tsunami at Fukushima. It flips between geographies, flicking in details that make each distinct and real—modern Tokyo, with its maid cafes, schoolgirl fetishes, and salarymen; Jiko’s monastery, high on a hill near the northern Japanese coast; Ruth’s remote island community in British Columbia, with its quirky residents and their unexpected talents; and suburban life in Silicon Valley, viewed through Nao’s pink-tinted memories.

If this weren’t enough, the novel also has trick mirrors, breaking boundaries between fiction and the real world. This was part of Ozeki’s intent, her project. It led her to use herself, Ruth, as the character who finds and reads Nao’s diary. Like the real Ozeki, the fictional Ruth is half Japanese, has a German artist husband named Oliver, had a writer’s residence at Stanford, lost her mother’s to Alzheimer’s, and so on. “I liked the idea of this character that was on one hand, real,” Ozeki said in an interview, “but then to have that reality disrupted by something magical.” She also noted how, as a “time being,” the Ruth she is today is not the same Ruth as the Ruth who wrote the novel, and the Ruth who wrote the novel is not the same as the fictional Ruth.

But still: I loved this book. I fell for Nao in the first chapter, a teen who is alternately thoughtful and profane, heartbreaking and hilarious. Then, each chapter that followed gave me something new to think about. Each chapter had something surprising or unexpected, ratcheting up the stakes, so that I wanted to know what happened to Nao as badly as Ruth wanted to know.

I listened to A Tale for the Time Being in audio. Ozeki reads it herself, and she is a wonderful narrator, giving Nao and Ruth distinctly different voices, incorporating Japanese phrases and Japanese-accented English with native-speaking authenticity, singing Buddhist prayers as they sound in her head. There is, however, something missing from the audio, and that is the footnotes and appendices of the print volume, which create yet another layer of meaning, another blurring of the boundaries between fiction and reality, and which tempts me to experience the novel a second time, this time in print.

(Full title: Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir)

Why did I read this? Ruth Reichl is food royalty. She was the much-lauded editor of Gourmet Magazine for a decade. Before that, she was The New York Times’ restaurant critic. Before that, she was the restaurant critic and food editor for the Los Angeles Times. Before that, she owned a restaurant in Berkeley. Along the way, she has written cookbooks, memoirs, and, oh yes, a novel; she has appeared as host or judge on innumerable television shows; and she has received six James Beard Awards.

Yet I’d never read any of her books. I have no good explanation. I think it might be that every time I saw her judging this or that cooking competition, she reminded me of a high school teacher who scared me—a woman who was equal parts nurturing flower-child and stern taskmaster, with a big head of uncontrollable hair and a tendency towards overenthusiastic scrutiny of everything I wrote. Or maybe it’s because her Twitter feed channels a Thomas Kinkade aesthetic: “Black branches against a pale sky. Snow falls. Rich cocoa: billows of whipped creams. Warm buttery biscuits. Waiting for the storm.”

What is it about? As the title indicates, Save Me the Plums is Reichl’s memoir of her Gourmet years, from the moment she accepted the job of editor-in-chief to the magazine’s sad demise in 2009, a casualty of both the recession and the calculations of Condé Nast’s then-chairman, the late and legendary Si Newhouse. Reichl takes us through her sink-or-swim education; her rosy years of success and growing self-confidence; and her rude awakening to the brutal business realities of shrinking advertising revenue.

Would I recommend it? Interested in a behind-the-scenes glimpse at Gourmet’s final decade? In what the food was like at Condé Nast’s Frank Gehry-designed cafeteria? In why a cover featuring cupcakes triggered an avalanche of subscription cancellations? In the eye-popping perks granted Condé Nast’s top executives? In why Epicurious, and not Gourmet, ended up with the digital rights to Gourmet’s recipes? In how Gourmet tested its recipes? In how Daniel Boulud hosted an impromptu midnight party, the chef-version of a potluck, for a couple hundred hungry food world professionals? If those things interest you, you’ll like this book. Reichl is a very good writer; her prose is readable, energetic, and sharp; and she packs the book with great stories, a good bit of humor, and plenty of cameos by New York’s celebrity chefs and financial titans.

I do, though, have some nits to pick. The biggest is Reichl’s recurrent descriptions of all the ways she lacked confidence, felt herself at sea, and saw herself as the dowdy ugly duckling among swans. This is accompanied by a striking absence of the kind of details that might have revealed her savvy. For example, as she recounts how Condé Nast hired her and why she accepted, she doesn’t seem to have asked any questions. Nor does she mention any negotiation, implying that she just took whatever contract they put in front of her. Nor does she describe any homework, any attempt to learn the lay-of-the-land before accepting the job. It all seems disingenuous. Of course, maybe it’s all true. Maybe she really did land at Gourmet with no real discussions or preparation. Maybe her discomforts and insecurities were all real. But she’s writing this book from the perch of someone who has had one of the most accomplished and successful careers in American food, and that makes it hard to swallow her poor naïve country mouse routine.

I also rolled my eyes when she veered into trite corp-speak banalities, which was surprising, given how good a writer she is. “Nothing feels as good as building a team and empowering people, watching them grow and thrive,” she says at one point, basically quoting every executive interviewed for every job, ever, none of whom really mean it. Barf.

But nits notwithstanding, I liked this book, liked it enough that I’ve put her other memoirs on my list of books to read one of these days. Because the one thing that comes through loud and clear and authentically is how much Ruth Reichl truly loves food—its deliciousness, its importance to memory, its role in building and cementing relationships. That passion is infectious. And reading Save Me the Plums left me wanting more of that—plus a generous slice of the jeweled chocolate cake she spends an afternoon helping to perfect.

Why did I read this? This was a book group choice. It was considered by various reviewers one of the best thrillers of 2020.

What is it about? Inspired in part by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, this is a modern take on a closed room mystery. Ten people have arrived at a remote mountain chalet in the Alps for a corporate retreat. Their company is a tech start-up, creator of a fictional mobile app called “Snoop,” which allows users to listen in real time to whatever music any other user is streaming. Also present, the chalet’s manager and its chef. Trapped in the chalet by an avalanche, without electricity or mobile phone reception, people start to die.

Would I recommend it? As mystery thrillers go, One by One is entertaining. Ware certainly knows how to build suspense and momentum. The book barrels along, alternating perspective between two characters, with each chapter tightly constructed to layer in something new that, in fine mystery tradition, keeps the characters (and the reader) a bit off-balance. I’m not sure, though, that Ware knows how to write a denouement. After the climactic chase scene (on skis, of course), the book wanders through several more chapters, each one with the feel of an ending. I also took issue with more than one implausibility in the plot, while others in my book group identified an even longer list of snorters.

So, back to the question: would I recommend it? Sure. It’s a quick fun read. But was it really one of the best thrillers of 2020? I don’t read a lot of thrillers, so I can’t judge, but if it is, the bar must be low. There’s not much more to One by One than what’s on the surface, which meant our book group discussion was mighty short… as is this post.