The nature of the book review cycle means excellent books often disappear once the initial press subsides. Book coverage tends to focus on either what’s new (through interviews, reviews and events) or canonized classics. As such, many books fall into a middle-ground of not being quite new but not being old enough for canon status.
Noticing this trend, editors at the Chicago Review of Books want to recommend a few books we loved from the recent past. These are the kind of books you probably made a mental note to read but haven’t heard about for a couple of years. Here’s our list of books that deserve a second chance at your attention.
Managing Editor Sara Batkie’s picks:
Do Not Say We Have Nothing
By Madeleine Thien
W.W. Norton & Company
Madeleine Thien’s sweeping novel of the Chinese Cultural Revolution may seem like it’s set in a safely distant place and time for American readers, but its depiction of how political and personal forces can doom us to cycles is relevant beyond borders. One of the major steps in accepting tyranny is convincing ourselves we don’t need one another; Thien’s book makes a great case for showing why those instincts can never entirely be blotted out.
By Claudia Dey
Claudia Dey’s highly underrated novel is a “missing woman” story, though it’s one that plays with the conventions and expectations of the genre, told from three distinct but off-kilter viewpoints, one of which is a dog. Shades of “The Village,” “Twin Peaks,” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” abound, but the story is 100 percent its own thing: a propulsive, unsettling read about family, forgiveness, and the myriad ways pretty much every culture fails women.
By Hari Kunzru
Hari Kunzru cooks up a strange brew here. It’s a tale of two young musicians who mistakenly record a ghost, a tale that manages to touch on class, race, privilege, and cultural appropriation. Gruesome murders and bodily possessions follow, but perhaps what’s hardest to shake off is the suggestion that everyone in America is under the same unspoken curse. We’re all still paying the price for what our forefathers wrought; some of us just pay more than others.
Daily Editor Michael Welch’s picks:
By Eric Charles May
Bedrock Faith follows the residents of the fictional South Side neighborhood of Parkland as they respond to the return of local troublemaker Gerald “Stew Pot” Reeves, who has appointed himself the moral judge of his community following his religious awakening in prison. The book is both intimate and extensive in scope, outrageous and laugh-out-loud funny—I’ve never read a 400 plus page book so fast.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us
By Hanif Abdurraqib
Two Dollar Radio
In this essay collection, Abdurraqib uses a wide range of musical genres and icons as his lense to explore the black experience, the aftermath of the 2016 election, grief, and the moments of joy that make survival a possibility. Reading They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is like listening to your favorite album on a solo night drive—it’s urgent and heartbreaking, cathartic and elegiac, and truly unforgettable.
Director of Communications Kyle Williams’ picks:
The Narco-Imaginary: Essays Under the Influence
By Ramsey Scott
Ugly Duckling Presse
The literary criticism of Ramsey Scott is a path into a new potentiality for essays, for criticism, and for literature. Essays do not have to have the same structure established by the likes of Kant; criticism does not have to look like the prestigious scholarship of the likes of Frye or Bloom; and literature, whatever it is or isn’t, can look like a hole in the ground. The weirdness of this book, with essays on (in)famously weird writers like Robert Grenier and Samuel R. Delany, is likely part of the reason it didn’t find a wide audience, but that same weirdness is the reason this book should be read.
The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out
By Karen Solie
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Griffin Poetry Prize winner Karen Solie is a genius for poetic explorations of the sprawling network that is modernity. The poems in this collection sacrifice no lyric in their pursuit of critique, and she freely quotes from Wittgenstein and Benjamin when looking at excruciating beauty and horror alike. While looking forward to Solie’s upcoming collection, The Caiplie Caves, I will be re-reading “Rental Car” from this collection, which I have been rereading since the book’s release:
“We are all locals now. A thing is what it is called.
Country has become the countryside.
It gets so you don’t want to talk about it,
though the air is thick with personal messaging.
A thought could walk on it as on stones to find you.
My good horse will bear me over the river
of that noise. As through a burning cloud
my good horse will carry me.”
Thérèse and Isabelle
By Violette Leduc
Leduc’s lyrical minimalism is beautiful and deeply felt, and THÉRÈSE has a storied publishing history, as does Leduc herself. Though most of her work is now out of print in English, Leduc, a protege of Simone de Beauvoir, was published by Albert Camus and championed by Jean-Paul Sartre. Leduc never achieved much popularity, but her work can read like a frankly feminist take on the erotics of writers like Genet. THÉRÈSE, chopped out of an earlier novel by a publisher who thought its explicitly lesbian content too risque, lives, breathes, and sings with Sophie Lewis’s translation, and I am so thankful to the Feminist Press for their work unearthing unjustly forgotten classics like this.
Features Editor Jordan Foti Gulino’s pick:
Geometry of Shadows
By Giorgio De Chirico, Translated By Stefania Heim
A Public Space
The surrealist painter Giorgio De Chirico impressed upon the art world visions of winding lanes, tilting buildings, and figures traipsing into darkness during his metaphysical phase, from 1909 to 1919. With the publication of Geometry of Shadows, translated from the Italian by Stefania Heim, the painter’s written world also comes to life. Heim’s English translations of De Chirico’s poetry and missives render previously unimaginable avenues of the painter’s inner world with delicacy and precision. It’s a must read for art appreciators of all stripes.
Executive Editor Todd Van Luling’s pick:
By Gary Shteyngart
Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 novel Super Sad True Love Story got me through an early summer in New York City. Its depiction of a futuristic dystopia NYC now seems prescient for getting ahead of one of the most overdone storytelling tropes of the 2010s. I came to Lake Success with high expectations, especially given the subject matter promised to satirize hedge fund managers—a worthy and fascinating target in my mind. But instead of another story trapped in the five boroughs, the book tells the tale of a misguided, obtusely American man road-tripping across the southern United States while riding a Greyhound bus and searching for happiness. As such, the book pairs well with Charles Portis’ 1979 book Dog of the South, but with the anti-capitalist lens Shteyngart is known for at this point.