These two 2022 novels I read from the library recently were such fun, but also had me fighting back tears – they’re lovely, bittersweet reads that think seriously about time and failure and loss (and prompted me to ask myself, “Was everything better in 1995–6?” The answer to which is an emphatic YES). If you’re a city-goer, you’ll appreciate the loving depictions of New York City and Los Angeles. They’re also perfect literary/ commercial crossovers that I can imagine recommending to just about any of my readers. Both:
This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub
Emma Straub is one of the most reliable authors I know for highly readable literary fiction (see also: Jami Attenberg, Maggie O’Farrell and Ann Patchett): while there’s always a lot going on in terms of family dysfunction and character dynamics, her plots are juicy and the prose slides right down (especially Modern Lovers, as well as The Vacationers). Here Alice Stern is a frustrated 40-year-old who feels stuck career- and relationship-wise, working in admissions in the same NYC private school she once attended and living with an okay boyfriend she secretly hopes won’t propose. She devotes much of her emotional energy to her seriously ill father, Leonard, who it seems may never be released from the hospital.
Leonard is the one-hit sci-fi author of a cult classic about time travel, and when an inebriated Alice falls asleep near her childhood home on the night of her 40th birthday, she has her own time-travel adventure, waking up on her 16th birthday in 1996. This is her chance, she thinks: to make sure things go right with her high school crush, and to encourage her father to write more and adopt healthier habits so he won’t be dying in a hospital 24 years down the line. As she figures out the rules of this personal portal and attempts the same transition again and again, she starts to get the hang of what works; what she can change and what is inexorable. And she tries to be a better person, both then and now.
True sci-fi aficionados would probably pick holes in the reasoning, but I would say so long as you pick this up expecting a smart commentary on relationships, ageing, loss and regret rather than a straight-up time-travel novel, you’ll be just fine. Straub is closer to my older sister’s age than mine, but I still loved the 1990s nostalgia, and looking back at your childhood/teen years from a parent’s perspective can only ever be an instructive thing to do.
It’s clever how Straub starts cycling through the time changes faster and faster so they don’t get repetitive. The supporting characters like Sam (Alice’s African American best friend), Kenji and even Ursula the cat are great, and there are little nods throughout to other pop culture representations of time travel. This was entertaining and relatable, but also left me with a lump in the throat. And it was all the more poignant to have been reading it just as news hit of author Peter Straub’s death; it’s a daughter’s tribute.
Some favourite lines:
(Alice thinking about Leonard) “She would feel immeasurably older when he was gone.”
“Maybe, she thought, … her mistake had been assuming that somewhere along the line, everything would fall into place and her life would look just like everyone else’s.”
(in 1996) “Everyone was gorgeous and gangly and slightly undercooked, like they’d been taken out of the oven a little bit too early”
“Any story could be a comedy or a tragedy, depending on where you ended it. That was the magic, how the same story could be told an infinite number of ways.”
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
I didn’t think I’d ever read another novel by Zevin after the dud that was The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (by far my most popular negative review on Goodreads), but Laura’s fantastic review changed my mind.
Here’s the summary I wrote for Bookmarks magazine:
Sadie Green and Sam Masur met in unlikely circumstances. In 1986, Sam’s serious foot injury had him in a children’s hospital, where Sadie was visiting her sister, who had cancer. They hit it off talking video games, but Sam was hurt to learn Sadie kept up the visits to earn community service hours for her bat mitzvah. When they meet again during college in Boston, they decide to co-design a game. Helped by his roommate and her boyfriend, they create a bestseller, Ichigo, based on The Tempest. Over the decades, these gaming friends collaborate multiple times, but life throws some curveballs. A heartwarming story for gamers and the uninitiated alike.
The novel was more complicated than I expected, mostly because it spans nearly 30 years – and my main critique would probably be that a shorter timeline would have been more intense. It also goes to some dark places as it probes the two central characters’ traumas and tendency to depression. But their friendship, which over the years becomes a business partnership that also incorporates Sam’s college roommate, Marx Watanabe, is a joy. The creative energy and banter are enviable. Marx is the uncomplicated, optimistic go-between when Sam and Sadie butt heads and take offense at perceived betrayals. Underneath Sam and Sadie’s conflicts is a love different from, and maybe superior to, romantic love (I think Sam might best be described as ace).
Gaming comes across as better than reality in that it offers infinite possibilities for do-overs. Life, on the other hand, only goes in one direction and is constrained by choices, your own and others’. Part VII, “The NPC” (for non-player character), is in second person narration and is beautiful as well as heartbreaking – I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers.
Apart from playing Super Mario with older cousins at 1990s family reunions and a couple of educational computer games with my childhood best friend, I don’t have any history with gaming at all, yet Zevin really drew me in to the fictional worlds Sadie and Sam created with their games. What with the vivid imagery and literary allusions, EmilyBlaster, Ichigo and Master of the Revels are real works of art, bridging high and low culture and proving that Dickinson’s poetry and Shakespeare’s plays are truly timeless. I was also interested to see how games might be ahead of their time socio-politically.
This reminded me most of The Animators and The Art of Fielding, similarly immersive stories of friendship and obsessive commitment to work and/or play. In the same way that you don’t have to know anything about cartooning or baseball to enjoy those novels, you don’t have to be a gamer to find this a nostalgic, even cathartic, read.
Some favourite lines:
“for Marx, the world was like a breakfast at a five-star hotel in an Asian country—the abundance of it was almost overwhelming. Who wouldn’t want a pineapple smoothie, a roast pork bun, an omelet, pickled vegetables, sushi, and a green-tea-flavoured croissant? They were all there for the taking and delicious, in their own way.”
Sam to Sadie: “We work through our pain. That’s what we do. We put the pain into the work, and the work becomes better.”
Marx (who was a college actor) in the early years, citing Macbeth: “What is a game? It’s tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. It’s the possibility of infinite rebirth, infinite redemption. The idea that if you keep playing, you could win. No loss is permanent, because nothing is permanent, ever.”
I sometimes like to call this post “The Best Books You’ve Probably Never Heard Of (Unless You Heard about Them from Me)”. However, these picks vary quite a bit in terms of how hyped or obscure they are; the ones marked with an asterisk are the ones I consider my hidden gems of the year. Between this post and my Fiction/Poetry and Nonfiction best-of lists, I’ve now highlighted about the top 13% of my year’s reading.
Salt Slow by Julia Armfield: Nine short stories steeped in myth and magic. The body is a site of transformation, or a source of grotesque relics. Armfield’s prose is punchy, with invented verbs and condensed descriptions that just plain work. She was the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel winner. I’ll be following her career with interest.
*Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bomann: In late-1940s Paris, a psychiatrist counts down the days and appointments until his retirement. A few experiences awaken him from his apathy, including meeting Agatha, a new German patient with a history of self-harm. This debut novel is a touching, subtle and gently funny story of rediscovering one’s purpose late in life.
A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier: Chevalier is an American expat like me, but she’s lived in England long enough to make this very English novel convincing and full of charm. Violet Speedwell, 38, is an appealing heroine who has to fight for a life of her own in the 1930s. Who knew the hobbies of embroidering kneelers and ringing church bells could be so fascinating?
Akin by Emma Donoghue: An 80-year-old ends up taking his sullen pre-teen great-nephew with him on a long-awaited trip back to his birthplace of Nice, France. The odd-couple dynamic works perfectly and makes for many amusing culture/generation clashes. Donoghue nails it: sharp, true-to-life and never sappy, with spot-on dialogue and vivid scenes.
Things in Jars by Jess Kidd: In 1863 Bridie Devine, female detective extraordinaire, is tasked with finding the six-year-old daughter of a baronet. Kidd paints a convincingly stark picture of Dickensian London, focusing on an underworld of criminals and circus freaks. The prose is spry and amusing, particularly in her compact descriptions of people.
*The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin: Bleak yet beautiful in the vein of David Vann’s work: the story of a Taiwanese immigrant family in Alaska and the bad luck and poor choices that nearly destroy them. This debut novel is full of atmosphere and the lowering forces of weather and fate.
The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal: Set in the early 1850s and focusing on the Great Exhibition and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, this reveals the everyday world of poor Londoners. It’s a sumptuous and believable fictional world, with touches of gritty realism. A terrific debut full of panache and promise.
*The Heavens by Sandra Newman: Not a genre I would normally be drawn to (time travel), yet I found it entrancing. In her dreams Kate becomes Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” and sees visions of a future burned city. The more she exclaims over changes in her modern-day life, the more people question her mental health. Impressive for how much it packs into 250 pages; something like a cross between Jonathan Franzen and Samantha Harvey.
*In Love with George Eliot by Kathy O’Shaughnessy: Many characters, fictional and historical, are in love with George Eliot over the course of this debut novel. We get intriguing vignettes from Eliot’s life with her two great loves, and insight into her scandalous position in Victorian society. O’Shaughnessy mimics Victorian prose ably.
Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid: This story of the rise and fall of a Fleetwood Mac-esque band is full of verve and heart. It’s so clever how Reid delivers it all as an oral history of pieced-together interview fragments. Pure California sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll, yet there’s nothing clichéd about it.
*ABC of Typography by David Rault: From cuneiform to Comic Sans, this history of typography is delightful. Graphic designer David Rault wrote the whole thing, but each chapter has a different illustrator, so the book is like a taster course in comics styles. It is fascinating to explore the technical characteristics and aesthetic associations of various fonts.
*The Lady Doctor by Ian Williams: Dr. Lois Pritchard works at a medical practice in small-town Wales and treats embarrassing ailments at a local genitourinary medicine clinic. The tone is wonderfully balanced: there are plenty of hilarious, somewhat raunchy scenes, but also a lot of heartfelt moments. The drawing style recalls Alison Bechdel’s.
*Thousandfold by Nina Bogin: This is a lovely collection whose poems devote equal time to interactions with nature and encounters with friends and family. Birds are a frequent presence. Elsewhere Bogin greets a new granddaughter and gives thanks for the comforting presence of her cat. Gentle rhymes and half-rhymes lend a playful or incantatory nature.
*When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back by Naja Marie Aidt: Aidt’s son Carl Emil died in 2015, having jumped out of his fifth-floor Copenhagen window during a mushroom-induced psychosis. The text is a collage of fragments. A playful disregard for chronology and a variety of fonts, typefaces and sizes are ways of circumventing the feeling that grief has made words lose their meaning forever.
*Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed by Catrina Davies: Penniless during an ongoing housing crisis, Davies moved into the shed near Land’s End that had served as her father’s architecture office until he went bankrupt. Like Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, this intimate, engaging memoir serves as a sobering reminder that homelessness is not so remote.
*Hard Pushed: A Midwife’s Story by Leah Hazard: An empathetic picture of patients’ plights and medical professionals’ burnout. Visceral details of sights, smells and feelings put you right there in the delivery room. This is a heartfelt read as well as a vivid and pacey one, and it’s alternately funny and sobering.
*Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston: Autobiographical essays full of the love of place, chiefly her Colorado ranch – a haven in a nomadic career, and a stand-in for the loving family home she never had. It’s about making your own way, and loving the world even – or especially – when it’s threatened with destruction. Highly recommended to readers of The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch.
*Dancing with Bees: A Journey back to Nature by Brigit Strawbridge Howard: Bees were the author’s gateway into a general appreciation of nature, something she lost for a time in midlife because of the rat race and family complications. She clearly delights in discovery and is devoted to lifelong learning. It’s a book characterized by curiosity and warmth. I ordered signed copies of this and the Simmons (below) directly from the authors via Twitter.
*Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem: Maiklem is a London mudlark, scavenging for what washes up on the shores of the Thames, including clay pipes, coins, armaments, pottery, and much more. A fascinating way of bringing history to life and imagining what everyday existence was like for Londoners across the centuries.
Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper: Phelps-Roper grew up in a church founded by her grandfather and made up mostly of her extended family. Its anti-homosexuality message and picketing of military funerals became trademarks. This is an absorbing account of doubt and making a new life outside the only framework you’ve ever known.
*A Half Baked Idea: How Grief, Love and Cake Took Me from the Courtroom to Le Cordon Bleu by Olivia Potts: Bereavement memoir + foodie memoir = a perfect book for me. Potts left one very interesting career for another. Losing her mother when she was 25 and meeting her future husband, Sam, who put time and care into cooking, were the immediate spurs to trade in her wig and gown for a chef’s apron.
*The Lost Properties of Love by Sophie Ratcliffe: Not your average memoir. It’s based around train journeys – real and fictional, remembered and imagined; appropriate symbols for many of the book’s dichotomies: scheduling versus unpredictability, having or lacking a direction in life, monotony versus momentous events, and fleeting versus lasting connections.
Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro: On a whim, in her fifties, Shapiro sent off a DNA test kit and learned she was only half Jewish. Within 36 hours she found her biological father, who’d donated sperm as a medical student. It’s a moving account of her emotional state as she pondered her identity and what her sense of family would be in the future.
*The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey by Gail Simmons: Reprising a trek Robert Louis Stevenson took nearly 150 years before, revisiting sites from a childhood in the Chilterns, and seeing the countryside that will be blighted by a planned high-speed railway line. Although the book has an elegiac air, Simmons avoids dwelling in melancholy, and her writing is a beautiful tribute to farmland that was once saturated with the song of larks.
Coming tomorrow: Other superlatives and some statistics.