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Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

I thought Super Sad True Love Story was going to follow Gary Shteyngart’s earlier novels, Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and be at least a little funny. Not so much. Though his well-known wit is intact throughout, the novel turns out to be, in fact, super sad and, if not true, very believable. I’m an admitted geek for the dystopian genre, and Shteyngart’s near-future New York is much too familiar. Like Huxley and Atwood before him, Shteyngart’s vision resembles a degenerate today; unlike his forebears, he knows the once-unimaginable potential of smartphones and unlimited access to personal information. He highlights our contradictory embrace of simpler food and ever more complex technology as his characters pursue eternal youth. And the whole time, I couldn’t escape the feeling that narrator Lenny Abramov, in his forties in the story, would be one of my peers today. Super Sad True Love Story is one of the few dystopian novels I’ve read as an adult that feels both immediate and inevitable. – Katie Bolton

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P.S Your Cat is Dead by James Kirkwood

Admittedly, I’m sometimes prone to judge a book by its cover. In this case, it was a title. Cat? Dead? P.S.? Potential lurks within a few words.

After my eyes glazed across the thin spine in a used bookstore, the title itself sounded like it could provide the injection of sarcastic comedy I was seeking. My instincts soon proved right. P.S. Your Cat is Dead plays out like an extended sitcom episode. It’s no surprise that James Kirkwood adapted the novel from a play he’d written. The setting is minimal (protagonist Jimmy Zoole’s NYC apartment, New Year’s Eve), and the situation – Zoole catching and tying up homosexual burglar, Vito, in his apartment during a robbery – evolves gratuitously and microcosmically. The fact that both Zoole and Vito are pathetic underdogs with hopeless, lonely lives lets the wit ooze. In their sticky entanglement, a bizarre, untrustworthy friendship develops between Zoole and Vito. It’s a 1970s precursor to authors like Chuck Palahniuk. – Jory Spadea

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The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

For the fall 2010 Paris Review #194, Susannah Hunnewell asked Michel Houellebecq simply this, “How do you have the nerve to write some of the things you do?” Houellebecq answered, “Oh, it’s easy. I just pretend that I’m already dead.”

His biggest critics find him to be a literary pornographer bent on nihilistic tropes – at best. Others consider him to be one of the most important public intellectuals, externalizing culturally repressed thoughts on sex and race.

Michel Houellbeqc’s crowning work is the 1998 novel The Elementary Particles that develops the lives of a scientist and his half brother, who endure the power of extra-marital temptation and wade through the persistence of self-doubt as working-class anti-heroes during turn of the late century France. With their immediate focus on Houellebecq’s raw prose, illustrating almost uncomfortably real details of sex, critics and readers rendered Particles infamous upon its initial release. To this end, Houellebecq succeeds where other writers commonly fail, by including banal sex scenes in their work. Besides the overarching comment on biology and sociology that {Particles} makes, it deftly transports you with passages of despair in sex, elation in sex and ultra-consciousness in sex. The Houellebecq experience affords you the carnal knowledge of Henry Miller and exposes you to the sensual violence of William T. Vollman. To read The Elementary Particles is to swelter. – Sky Madden

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The Magic Mountain by Thoman Mann

As any hypochondriac, chronic worrier or Woody Allen protagonist can attest: the body is a terrifying thing, full of all kinds of things that can potentially, and will one day assuredly, go wrong. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain is the book for these people, following Hans Castorp, a man who thinks he’s healthy, until he visits his tubercular cousin in a sanitarium in the Swiss Alps. A bizarre netherworld full of fascinating characters, the sanitarium functions as a scathing symbol early 20th century Europe, conflating the concealed chaos of the human body with that of a continent about to descend into total war. – Jesse Cataldo

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The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

I’m no prude, but I’m just not one for pot humor. So I almost didn’t read The Financial Lives of the Poets when I saw that the plot hinged on a “suburban dad goes nuts by way of possession-with-intent-to-distribute” theme. But as a person with a career related to the housing industry and a side gig as a contributor to the publication you’re reading right now, something about the title called my name. Matt Prior, a disappointed but earnest dude next door, walks away from his duties as a newspaper business reporter in order to focus on launching poetfolio.com, a website devoted to – crazy as it sounds – financially themed poetry. Turns out this was not a fiscally prudent move.

Faced with an imminent balloon mortgage payment, a wife with questionable Facebook activity and a live-in senile father to look after, Prior looks to what we’ll call “subversive entrepreneurship” to close the gap. Much of Walter’s dialogue is spot-on and priceless (one stoner slams, “You so crazy you took the short bus to school,” as the other retorts, “You know that shit was behavioral, yo.”). Walter locates the comedy in the dystopia; though in passages like the one where his dying mother, obsessed with the threat of terrorist attacks, asks if “there will be any more 7/11s,” all you can do is laugh to keep from crying. – Stacey Pavlick

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I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley

I’m going to say something blasphemous, and I hope you all will forgive what is surely my West Coaster’s ignorance, bred of too much sunshine and easy living: I have no desire whatsoever to live in New York City. Ever. So there. And what’s more, I resent the notion that one somehow cannot be a serious writer or true citizen of the American world without serving time in our nation’s chaotic and expensive symbolic capitol.

Perhaps this is why Sloane Crosley’s delightfully titled debut collection of essays, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, struck so close to home. In a series of neurotic and awkwardly funny observational and personal stories, Crosley’s account of solo life in New York manages to capture the city without alienating non-residents. Her neuroses (peculiarly like my own, and perhaps a source of bias when it comes to my enthusiasm for this book), utter lack of pretension, compulsive behavior and honesty without fear of derision make her narrator’s trials universal and deliciously empathetic.

Crosley’s voice is like the one in your head that yearns to drop F-bombs at inappropriate times, despises nonsensical bridal shower games and, deep, deep down, still loves Oregon Trail – translated into deft prose and rendered unfailingly astute and entertaining. She may live in New York but her writing never relies on that crutch for significance, finding a foothold instead in the prosaic oddities that make life the colorful, complicated and socially awkward mess that it is. – Lauren Westerfield

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I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter

Douglas Hofstadter won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. The book was his attempt to weave together the story of so-called “strange loops” from various fields of knowledge and how these self-recursive structures underlie and compose the process of consciousness. In the years since it appeared the author has gone on record with his disappointment over how the arguments in the book have been misconstrued and ultimately misunderstood. I Am a Strange Loop is his corrective. It recontextualizes the former work, making it easier to understand for a lay audience. With dozens of brilliant metaphors and analogies, the author provides the most plausible solution yet to the “hard problem” of consciousness – how it can be that a mass of physical matter squeezed into a cranium can give rise to subjective experience in all its forms. When he gets to the chapter that deals with his deceased wife, and how he believes that the pattern that comprises her consciousness can still live on in his brain, the book takes an emotional turn without ever getting maudlin. I Am a Strange Loop is the perfect marriage of science and soul. – Shannon Gramas

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Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Channeling the spirit of Truman Capote, Dave Eggers captures non-fiction at its most gripping with Zeitoun. Although much of the country has moved on from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, many residents of the Gulf Coast still struggle in its aftermath. Zeitoun tells the story of one man whose life was shattered by the storm, just one heartbreaking tale out of millions. When Syrian immigrant Abdulrahman Zeitoun decides to remain in New Orleans after the levees break, he becomes an unwitting symbol of a national policy ripped apart by post-9/11 fear. A well-respected business owner before the flood, Zeitoun soon becomes a silent prisoner in his adopted country. Zeitoun is not a story about a Muslim in America, but an American family faced with a terrible situation. And underneath all the horror, Eggers instills optimism and humanism. Rather than walk away from the book in anger, the hope exists we can learn from this tragic chapter in our combined history – David Harris

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This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust

2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, and over the next four years we can expect to see cursory news features about statesmen, battles and generals. Overlooked in such stories will be the personal toll the war exacted, which Drew Gilpin Faust perfectly captures in This Republic of Suffering. With both pathos and historical objectivity, Faust examines how Americans, both North and South, coped with death during the War, from the practical (embalming, the rise of charity organizations and the development of national cemeteries) to the personal (most wrenchingly, the futile attempts of family members to get confirmation of a loved one’s death). As the past recedes we tend to reduce history to a series of facts and statistics. But history is not merely names and dates, and throughout her book, Faust personalizes both the War and the tragedies it wrought like few other academics ever have. – Eric Dennis

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Cloud Atlas: A Novel by David Mitchell

I’m not going to pretend that I got David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas: A Novel. I didn’t. At all. I know there must be some earth-shattering significance beyond the obvious in the way that elements of the six storylines collided, but the hell if I know what it is. Thing is, I don’t really care. Though the book’s deeper meaning was over my head, the intertwining tales were so engaging and the writing so lush that after I finished the book I sat for a few minutes mulling over what it all might mean, and then turned to page one and started again in hopes that a quick reread might shed some light. Well, it didn’t, but I enjoyed it even more the second time around. Comprised of six separate yet loosely related stories, the book moves from an 1850s Pacific sea voyage to a not-too-distant-future post-apocalyptic industrialized nation, with the letters of a destitute musician in 1930s Belgium, a 1970s California murder mystery, an old man held in a nursing home against his will and a Korean Brave New World-esque dystopia thrown in for good measure. Each storyline has a completely different narrative style and could be its own novella, but they flow seamlessly into one another, giving the book a cohesive feel despite the diversity of the vignettes. Each time you read it, you’ll be left with more questions than you had when you started, but the bewilderment is worth the weird, beautiful ride. – Tara Pierson Hoey

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The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

I read this book in one night during a combination bout of insomnia and bed bug paranoia, 55 stories above Times Square, this past February. I can think of no more appropriate place to read about the short side of the recent economic collapse than in a glistening tower on Manhattan Island, unarguably the geographic heart of the “doomsday machine” Michael Lewis describes so concisely.

Lewis tells the story of the collapse through the lens of the often eccentric players who saw the bubble growing and had the balls to bet against it while everyone around them was greedily lapping up the profits. Characters like Steve Eisman, who delighted in taking meetings with the people riding the bubble to explain to them just how dumb they were, or Dr. Michael Burry, whose proclivity for reading complex investment prospectuses ultimately led to the realization that he had Asperger’s syndrome. Lewis weaves in explanations of the nuts and bolts of the collapse that translate financial suit-speak into plain English. Want to read a compelling explanation of a collateralized debt obligation or a how a triple a rated tranche of mortgage bonds might as well have been composed of rat shit? Read The Big Short. – Tom Volk

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Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

A debut novel is a tricky thing. A burgeoning young author always has something to prove: imagination, technique, voice, you name it and a first time novelist has botched it. But Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! avoids all that. It’s an elegantly constructed, incredibly engaging story filled with tragedy, acidic humor and giant alligators. Lots of alligators.

It’s the story of the Bigtree family, a ragtag group of gator wrestlers managing a decrepit, failing amusement park in the Florida swamps. Each of the three children, Ava, Ossie and Kiwi struggle with their own connections to and dreams of their home, with ghosts, absent parents and the specter of familial destruction hanging over it all. But it’s also a series of stories within stories, of the mistakes and hopes of each child remaking the world as they want to see it. It’s as amazing as a debut could be. – Nathan Kamal

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Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions

Anyone who knows me knows I’m big on Borges. But that’s not simply because, in his own strange way, his metaphysical fiction prefigured the internet and Wikipedia (see “The Aleph” and “Library of Babel”), nor is it because his highly compacted and achingly splendorous prose knocks me on my ass every time I read any of the entries in his Collected Fictions. The reason I have mad respect for this lonesome Argentine – and the reason why everyone needs to read him – is that after Borges went blind he would memorize whole pieces, line by line, before ever getting a chance to recite them to his transcriptionist. Talk about commitment to the craft!

Come for the famous “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” stay for “Dreamtigers,” “House of Asterion” and “Death and the Compass.” His is a labyrinth I never wish to leave. – Joe Clinkenbeard

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Strange As This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake

Ann Pancake’s debut novel is a patient, insightful study of the way the world can shift around people who are just trying to hold on. Set primarily in West Virginia, Pancake shifts perspectives frequently as she portrays how families are built by circumstance and the rolling devastation that hits mountain communities when mining companies decide they want to detonate their way to profits. Informative without ever becoming didactic, the novel makes its arguments about the ravages of mountaintop removal mining by grounding the points in the well-constructed story of the people in those hills who feel a special pain when their homeland is threatened. The book is empathetic, moving and as rich as the wounded culture it describes. – Dan Seeger

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Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

Mr. Peanut explores the proximity of violence and love – beginning with the death of Alice Pepin. Ending her ongoing struggle with obesity and depression, she has committed suicide by anaphylactic shock – or so claims her husband, David. Shifts in the story’s perspective show the build up to Alice’s death as well as the disturbing parallels between the marital dramas of the two detectives handling the Pepin case and the cruel rotations of brinkmanship and adoration found in all three marriages. Ross’s depiction of love is harsh and heartwarming all at once, teeming with a relatable honesty that shows its characters both as individuals and as partners trying and failing to achieve happiness. Expanding and contracting in an ongoing loop not unlike the work of the novel’s frequently referenced M.C. Escher, alternate planes of reality and sprinklings of pop culture references keep the reader on their toes as {Mr. Peanut} plays out a murder mystery, drama and comedy using one of societies most fundamental institutions as the stage. – Sam Gordon

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The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Having only read a handful of Jonathan Franzen’s essays, I thought it would be best to dig into his novel The Corrections before navigating all the hype surrounding his most recent book, Freedom. Though his essay style had always kind of divided me, The Corrections immediately won me over. Its vivid portrayal of the Lamberts, a Midwest family with everyday problems that just about anyone can relate to, struck a number of chords inside of me. Feelings of familial regret, competition and expectation hit particularly hard; not because they necessarily echoed any personal experience, but because Franzen’s prose cut deep enough to make it feel personal. Throughout the novel, I found myself heartbroken, happy, and occasionally downright depressed as the fluctuation of people, economies and relationships remained unpredictable. This is a novel of great prowess and prescience and easily one of the finest works of American fiction. – Kyle Fowle

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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle had been sitting on my shelf for several months before I finally got around to reading it. I was hooked within the first 50 pages. Toru Okada’s cat is gone, his wife leaves and he’s recently unemployed. During the course of trying to find his wife and cat, he meets a wide range of characters that use him as much as he uses them. There are moments of shocking violence and tender lovemaking. Unexplainable facial markings appear; seemingly important characters disappear. The whole time the reader is never certain where the story is going and what is real.

Murakami has the unique ability to make a whole novel phantasmagorical. Almost every sentence can be read not knowing if what’s happening is ACTUALLY happening. Is the narrator dreaming? Or is something supernatural and unexplainable happening? At over 600 pages, the book can seem a bit daunting. However, you’ll soon find yourself opening the book whenever you have a free minute. And before you know it, it’s over. – Tris Miller

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