This month’s Friday Reads recommendations will take you from an Amsterdam dinner table to a New York City hospital room, and from 1970s Sarajevo to modern-day Seoul. These captivating books highlight conflict and memory in equal parts, and the results are certainly worth a spot on your fall reading list.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, The Dinner by Herman Koch, The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon, and The Vegetarian by Han Kang.
The Dinner by Herman Koch
Recommended by Andrew Willis (Editorial Assistant)
If Edward Albee had been writing in the era of the Knockout Game, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would have probably looked a lot like The Dinner by Herman Koch, first published in the original Dutch in 2009 and then in English in 2011. The present time of the narrative focuses on the unspoken tension between a pair of couples, the men brothers, who share nothing save genealogy and a mutual distaste for one another. This enmity seems powered at first by all the common criticisms and jealousies—he’s too bougie, she’s too obnoxious, too stupid, too arrogant. But as the conversation turns toward each couple’s child, whom together committed a ghastly, still hidden crime, we see that this is more than a formulaic knock at families who can’t get along. It’s an exploration of irredeemable characters, twisted morality, and evil, all hidden behind the thin veneer of high society. Not your typical beach read, but then again, summer ended this week. It’s time for the darker stuff.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Recommended byMegan Tucker Orringer (Associate Fiction Editor)
The classic first-day-of-school prompt: How did you spend your summer vacation? Each fall, we are asked to account for our time away. In this airy, melancholy novel, Pulitzer-prize winning author Elizabeth Strout reflects on who and what we remember, and the facts we are willing to report. Memories here are filtered by a New York hospital room where protagonist Lucy Barton is being treated for an unspecified infection. Lucy’s long-estranged mother sits beside her sick bed and the two women discuss people from the past, often the abrupt end to their marriages and other leavings. Structured in careful, short chapters, My Name is Lucy Barton is a great read for the frenetic, reboot pace of this time of year—pick it up, put it down, no lazy beach days required. The beauty and clarity of Strout’s writing refuses to be lost. Unapologetic emotion dominates the book but it is masterfully uncomplicated: happy/sad, fear/peace. Concern for fatigue also serves as a guide—something you might find yourself identifying with. Though individual lives are at the forefront, New York and the importance of place is never far. Step into the city, and you too can be a different person, at once burdened and lightened by the same old memories.
The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon
Recommended by Nayereh Doosti (Editorial Assistant)
I usually don’t like memoirs, but I’m recommending Aleksandar Hemon’s collection of short essays, The Book of My Lives. His nonfiction is just as good as his fiction: witty, so humorous and so earnest, chaotic and harmonious, all at the same time. It’s much more than just “another story” about the Bosnian war. By his refusal to romanticize it, Hemon proves that in war there is no such thing as a winner, while he brutally reveals the complexity of war and displacement. In this collection of autobiographical essays that have appeared independently, not Hemon himself but home and place become the uniting theme. He describes a child’s love for his city and a young man’s blooming relationship with his new home in Chicago. It’s an elegy to Sarajevo as he witnesses the destruction of his homeland. Yet the book has a strong sense of character, a fiction of the self. His final essay, in which he delicately and painfully recounts a very personal tragedy, is not about war, but the death of his daughter. It leaves us wondering if there is “always a story…more heartbreaking and compelling than yours,” more than any war story imagined.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Recommended by Sunna Juhn (Editorial Assistant)
My mom’s sales pitch to me for Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was, “It’s a story about a woman who stops eating meat because she starts to believe she is a plant, and everyone in Korea thinks it’s the weirdest book that’s been published there in a long time.” She wasn’t wrong: it is undeniably a strange, unique story. Told in three parts from three different perspectives, it follows the decline of a woman who begins her protest against human cruelty by becoming a vegetarian and ends it by refusing to perform any kind of human function whatsoever, now believing that she is a tree. We see the way her transformation affects everybody around her—it turns a loving father violent, an ambitious and successful sister broken. Kang probes the inexplicable, too, not asking the hard questions herself but rather leading the reader to those unanswerable questions about life and love and desire, and leaving us there to think about them. This book is short and the writing bare-boned, but it speaks volumes all the same.