Jeff’s picks for Valentine’s Day 2015

by Admin

If you’re like me, then you’re a romantic soul who paradoxically despises Valentine’s Day.  Perhaps you rarely find yourself in a committed romance in February, or perhaps you’re tired of the way this manufactured holiday reinforces gender-confinement through simplistic narratives of human intimacy.  Or maybe you’re just grumpy.

For all those feeling like a Valentine’s Day Grinchy McScrooge this year, here’s a list of eight books to feed your fury.  (They’re also very, very good books.)

1.     The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides (2011).

Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love. 

A fantastic book for the recently dumped, The Marriage Plot follows three young people caught in the throes of un-romance as they finish college and enter the world.  What makes this an especially fun read is the satirical mastery with which Pultitzer-winner Jeffrey Eugenides renders the central budding relationship of the book, drawing links between love, psychological instability, and spiritual confusion.

2.     This is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz (2012)

And that’s when I know it’s over.  As soon as you start thinking about the beginning, it’s the end.

Junot Diaz’ third book follows on the heels of the groundbreaking Drown and the Pulitzer-winning The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (recently hailed by BBC Culture as the best novel of the 21st century so far).  This is How You Lose Her reintroduces Diaz’ staple narrator Yunior, using his relationships and infidelities to examine the links between intimacy, masculinity, disease, sexual violence, and the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora.  With prose as sharp as a blade, these nine tightly-wound stories will leave you heartbroken, confused, and ultimately changed.

3.      The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri (2013)

She was relieved that she was not the only woman in his life.  That she, too, was a replacement…It justified the distance she continued to maintain from her new husband.  It suggested that maybe she didn’t have to love him after all.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent novel, which was a finalist for the National Book award, is perhaps the most beautifully heartbreaking piece of fiction I’ve ever read.  With her signature touch, Lahiri paints a decades-long picture of a family broken apart by displacement, political violence, and its own failed attempts to keep itself together.  From India to America and back, this book throws the timeline of our lives against the timeline of the universe, simultaneously celebrating and mourning our human need to propel ourselves forward in the face of tragedy.

4.     The Flamethrowers – Rachel Kushner (2013)

Enchantment means to want something and also to know, somewhere inside yourself, not an obvious place, that you aren’t going to get it.

Rachel Kushner is an awesome writer.  In this, her second novel to be nominated for the National Book Award, she dazzles us with her story of Reno, an otherwise unnamed narrator who moves to New York in the late 1970s to become an artist, thus beginning a journey filled with crazed bohemians, motorcycle tycoons, Italian revolutionaries, and three dashing men eager to either love her or use her.  Or both.  Kushner’s writing buzzes with an electric energy that is both funny and poignant.  This book is infernally addicting.

5.      Prelude to Bruise – Saeed Jones (2014)

I didn’t know/ your name, so I kissed one/ into your mouth.

Saeed Jones’s first full-length book of poetry has confirmed the twenty-nine-year-old’s presence as a dominating literary force.  Prelude to Bruise, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, follows Boy, a young man coming of age gay and black in the American south.  These relentless poems sing of pain and beauty.

Special note: to those who were sitting near me in The Mill while I was reading this book a few months ago, please accept my apologies. I hope my exclamations—“Damn!” or “Whaaat!” or “Oh my God!”—didn’t disturb you too much while you studied.  I dare you to read this book and not make noise.

6.      Bark – Lorrie Moore (2013)

That the intelligence in a thing could undermine your appetite for it.  That yumminess obscured the mind of the yummy as well as the mind of the yummer.  That deliciousness resulted in decapitation.  That you could only understand something if you did not desire it.

In Lorrie Moore’s long-awaited new collection, she confirms herself as America’s Voice of Divorce, a title that perhaps sounds more cynical than I intend it.  But the fact is: she writes relationship woes so darn well.  Bark displays Moore’s classic ability to effortlessly switch between playfulness and pain.  Artfully crafted, exquisitely delivered, these stories will break apart your cozy world and reassemble it.

7.     Song of Solomon – Toni Morrison (1977)

Totally taken over by her anaconda love, she had no self left, no fears, no wants, no intelligence that was her own. 

Toni Morrison’s books abound with love, but none of that Hallmark nonsense.  Morrison writes of the love that overthrows our sensibilities, binds us in friendship, separates us in crazy-making loneliness, overtakes our identities, and finally reconstructs the world in its own image.  While you’re gearing up for God Help the Child (which comes out this April) now is the time to revisit, or visit for the first time, one of her other novels.  Song of Solomon is brilliant, but let’s be honest, Morrison didn’t win the Nobel Prize for being a one-hit-wonder.  Any of her titles will do—I’ve personally got Sula on my on-deck stack—because this is a writer who fashioned new and important ways of thinking about race, language, and the overwhelming power of the heart.


8.   The Son – Philip Meyer (2013)

The difference between a brave man and a coward is very simple.  It’s a problem of love.  A coward loves only himself.

This book is brutal.  A finalist for the Pulitzer in 2014, The Son is a multi-generational Texas epic about money, power, oil, and the lines we invent to divide the civilized from the savage. But with all its unsparingly graphic depictions of barbaric violence and corporate-political corruption, The Son possesses at its core a white-hot sense of all that is beautifully human.  Spanning more than a century, the book acknowledges the forces—economic and historic—that press themselves into our lives.  A powerful, powerful book.

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