Four NPR staffers recommend new novels in a preview of our annual Books We Love roundup: ‘How High We Go in the Dark,’ ‘Vladimir,’ ‘Mecca,’ and ‘The Candy House’ .
ALINA SELYUKH, HOST:
Many of you look forward to the books we love from NPR at the end of each year. And that’s because it’s a great resource for new books to read, as recommended by our staff and contributors. But why wait? We have a few suggestions right now. Today, some of the best fiction of 2022 so far. We start with Code Switch producer Summer Thomad and a haunting fantasy novel about death.
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SUMMER THOMAD, BYLINE: The book I recommend is “How High We Go In The Dark” by Sequoia Nagamatsu. It is about a world reeling from a scourge caused by a climatic catastrophe. Sound familiar? From the earliest days of a pandemic to impacts that linger centuries into the future, the plague forces humans to deal with immeasurable grief and loss. But what I love most about this book is that despite all the misfortune, these stories are endlessly imaginative and rich in meaning. Although the world they inhabit is undeniably small, Nagamatsu’s characters harbor a sense of cosmic hope and humanity.
ROMMEL WOOD, BYLINE: My name is Rommel Wood and I’m an Associate Programming Producer at NPR. I recommend the book “Vladimir”, a novel by Julia May Jonas, because when was the last time a book made you sit down from your sofa and scream, what? Where are you going? It happened to me about three quarters of the way through his first novel. The book follows an anonymous narrator, a tenured professor in his fifties at a liberal arts college. She is married to a disgraced professor about to be expelled from campus due to a parade of former students who came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct. But she is not very concerned about her fate or the other women because she herself is in love with a new junior teacher. In “Vladimir”, Jonas carefully constructs a house of matches where our protagonist’s desires live in safety until she reaches a flashpoint that left me squirming and desperate to find out, how this will it end exactly?
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KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: I’m Karen Grigsby Bates. I’m the senior correspondent for Code Switch, NPR’s podcast on race and identity. I chose “Mecca”, a novel by Susan Straight. Straight writes a lot about California that we don’t often see or hear about. The people she writes about are working-class refugees. They came west to escape racial violence and poverty in places like Texas, Mississippi and Oaxaca. And some come from communities that have even lived in the state for thousands of years. “Mecca” is a beautiful set of intertwined stories of these people. They are linked to each other by their love for the land, by their work, for each other, for all these things. This Southern California is filled with desert highways, strip malls, and tiny suburban homes where everyday people are sometimes faced with choices that are anything but. Straight’s writing is bright, crisp and bold. And those stories are told richly layered family histories. Who would like this book? People who suspect there’s more to California than the Kardashians, wildfires and serial killers.
NATALIE ESCOBAR, BYLINE: My name is Natalie Escobar, and I’m an associate editor in NPR’s culture desk. I read “The Candy House” by Jennifer Egan. She is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “A Visit From The Goon Squad” and “The Candy House” is the sequel to her previous book. The basic principle is a bit complicated. But there is this form of social media that basically allows users to upload all of their memories onto what is called the collective consciousness. And if they upload all of their memories, they can also access all of the memories of users who have done the same. Each of the book’s chapters is told through the eyes of different people whose lives are affected by this new technology that is so all-encompassing that it fundamentally dictates much of how society functions. It’s this kind of alternate universe type book that really tackles a lot of questions: what is technology, especially social media, doing in our lives in the way we relate to each other as people? What would it be like to opt out of this? Is it possible? And because it’s Jennifer Egan, it’s a really beautifully written book. And I loved every moment.
SELYUKH: That’s it. NPR staff rave reviews for “The Candy House,” “Mecca,” “Vladimir,” and “How High We Go In The Dark.” For more reading ideas, check out our list of books we love at npr.org/bestbooks.
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