RIF’s Favorite Reads of May 2017

Helping you sort out the best from the rest published this month.

Favorite Reads of May

May is an odd month; it’s that in-between place that isn’t quite true spring but isn’t quite real summer. Luckily for us, it means we get to enjoy reading inside when it’s miserably raining and going out to read in parks and on benches when it’s warm and sunny. No matter where you enjoy your books, we have a fantastic group of them this month: our favorites are books we love for a variety of reasons, from the writing to the story to the themes and beyond. We love reading these books because they make us think, feel, and figure out the world around us better. Please enjoy this month’s picks—read on, friends!

Salt Houses by Hala AlyanFavorites of MayHala Alyan is a psychologist and poet as well as a fiction writer, and all these skills and professions show in her debut novel Salt Houses. This book follows the lives of various members of a Palestinian family, from their time in Palestine to the diaspora they end up in. Beginning with the family’s matriarch, Salma, Alyan moves us from one character to the next, bringing each member of the family into sharp focus, baring their desires and failings without judgment or approval. A gorgeous novel and an important one. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

My Life with Bob by Pamela PaulPamela Paul may be known to you as the editor of the New York Times Book Review, but if you wondered how she got there, and whether she really loves books as much as an editor of a book review should… then this is the book for you. Paul has kept a book of books (or BOB) by her side since she was a teenager, and in it, she’s recorded every book she’s read since then. In this memoir, Paul uses Bob to explore her history with books and how they’ve affected her, and in funny, moving, and relatable prose, she proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is the reader and book-lover that her current position requires. (Henry Holt and Co.)

Since We Fell by Dennis LehaneDennis Lehane’s newest book is being called his best yet and for good reason. We already know Lehane can weave a suspenseful and psychological tale, but in this novel, he takes what starts out as a deeply psychological interrogation of a woman and turns it into a murder mystery of sorts. Rachel Childs is an agoraphobe who shuts herself in after a breakdown on national TV in 2010 when she was reporting on the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. Yet despite this, she’s found a companion, a lover-turned-husband, who remains by her side as a link to the outside world. But when she discovers her husband isn’t quite what she thought, Rachel finds herself rallying, eager to chase whoever he truly is. (Ecco)

Into the Water by Paula HawkinsPaula Hawkins is back with an addictive novel, a terrific follow-up to her previous and equally addictive The Girl on the Train. In Into the Water, two women have been found dead in the river running through town; two women in one summer is a lot, even for this river, whose troubling history is oft-ignored but now has been dredged up alongside the bodies. The 15-year-old girl left behind by one of these deaths is now living with her aunt, a veritable stranger to her, but somehow involved in the secrets and lies surrounding the torrid waters. Follow along and unravel the mysteries in this compulsively quick read. (Riverhead)

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney SullivanA novel of now and then, of contemporary life and a not-too-distant history, J. Courtney Sullivan’s newest book is a lovely and aching thing. At the funeral of a drinker named Patrick, his family gathers around him—including an unknown, long-estranged aunt. She is Theresa, sister to Patrick’s mother Nora. 50 years ago, the two sisters came from Ireland to Boston, Nora already engaged and Theresa, precocious and whip-smart. Girlish transgressions that would be handled differently today cause Theresa to decamp to a nunnery in Vermont, at which point she and Nora break contact. Now, at this funeral, secrets begin to reveal themselves and family histories intertwine. (Knopf)

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert SapolskyWhether or not we’re introspective people, we’ve all had the experience of wondering why we’ve done something we’ve done. We’ve also definitely wondered why someone else did what they did. In Sapolsky’s new book, he explores these whys and how comes, by taking us back, one step at a time: starting with the conscious decision to do something, back into the brain’s wiring and the nervous system reacting to stimuli, back to the things that may have affected the nervous system like hormones, back to our brain’s wiring in adolescence, childhood, in the womb, and beyond—into culture’s effects on us and back into the genetics that affect us as well. Sweeping, grandiose, and fascinating. (Penguin Press)

I’ll Eat When I’m Dead by Barbara BourlandIt isn’t every day that you find a dead body at the office. So when fashion editor Hillary Whitney is found deceased in an unused conference room in the New York City offices of the uber chic magazine RAGE Fashion Book, it causes quite a stir. Her colleague Cat Ono becomes somewhat obsessed with finding out what happened to Hillary—she isn’t chalking it up to side effects of the pressure to be thin like everyone else. She and assistant editor, Bess Bonner, decide to do everything they can to help the hunky investigating officer, Detective Mark Hutton, crack the case and while, at times, they may be more of a hindrance than a help, their hearts are in the right place. A romp of serious satirical proportions, this book is LOL-worthy and smart at the same time. (Grand Central)

X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century by Chuck KlostermanChuck Klosterman is a renowned, though occasionally beleaguered, cultural critic, and in this book, he has collected essays from the last ten years about the last ten years. In other words, for his tenth book—hence the X of the book title—Klosterman reminds us of how incredibly jam-packed full of cultural phenomena the early 21st century has been so far. With new introductions, footnotes, even occasionally ignoring his editors’ cuts and bringing us the whole essay as he intended it, these essays still feel fresh, often funny, and sometimes cringeworthily honest. His profiles are astute and his critiques free of snobbery (unless it’s the snobbery of the decision to pursue the uncool). A fantastic collection. (Blue Rider Press)

The Awkward Age by Francesca SegalThe teen years are an awkward age indeed, and boy, do parents know it; Francesca Segal, in her latest novel, makes it clear that so does she. Julia and James are each other’s happily-ever-afters—at least, as much as that concept can exist when each has already endured a previous marriage and raised a teenage child. When they move into Julia’s London townhouse together, they’re also forcing those very children to become, for all intents and purposes, stepsiblings, which is how Gwen and Nathan end up living together. But though Gwen, Julia’s daughter, and Nathan, James’ son, are so very different… well, you can guess what happens next. The stuff of rom-coms can be emotionally complex—and this novel is certainly that, and wonderfully so. (Riverhead)

Mother Land by Paul TherouxIn the deft hands of Paul Theroux, a family drama becomes an exploration of self-loathing as well as the very real loathing of one’s family members. Mother has just been widowed, and her children—including narrator JP—are gathered around her. But none of them are good enough; the only child she considers a success and a comfort to her is the one who died in childbirth. To this perfect and imaginary model, Mother compares the rest, including JP whose novels are “trash” according to Mother. As she ages and her children come and go, visiting not enough or being useless and upsetting when they do visit, the drama becomes richer with the subject of inheritance possibilities. A big book for a big family, and well worth a read. (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Woman No. 17 by Edan LepuckiEdan Lepucki’s new book revolves around two women, both artists in their own way. One is Lady, a writer with two children, who has just kicked her husband out of the house in the Hollywood Hills. In order to continue the work of writing her memoir, she needs help keeping watch of her kids, and that’s where the second woman comes in. S Fowler is a young woman (née Esther) whose newest art project may be taking a disturbing turn, and she takes the job of nanny to Lady’s kids, a toddler and an 18-year-old mute. As these two women’s lives begin to intertwine through the children they’re both connected to, secrets begin to spill and the drama pulsates on the pages. Lepucki’s novel looks at what it means to be a woman, what it means to be the subject of an artist’s gaze and what it means to be both at the same time. (Hogarth)

Underground Fugue by Margot SingerMargot Singer’s first novel deals with some difficult topics, including Islamophobia and parental grief. It is the summer of 2005, and Esther has fled her marriage, her job, her entire life, in order to move to London and take care of her dying mother. When she begins seeing her mother’s next door neighbor, an Iranian neuroscientist named Javid, she can’t help but be suspicious of his teenage son. Despite the affair with Javid, Esther is nevertheless besieged by xenophobic fears, especially once the July 7 bombings hit London, someone goes missing, and Esther is tossed into the center of a fearful and demoralizing situation. Deftly handled, this novel’s characters reflect a time and place and the attitudes gripping much of the Western world still. (Melville House)

Broken River by J. Robert LennonBroken River is a small town—the kind of small town everyone wants to get out of because of the memories it evokes. And yet, it is a house in this small town that Karl, Eleanor, and their 12-year-old daughter Irina move into. The house has a creepy past: the parents who used to live in it were murdered in the woods nearby, leaving their own small child as the only survivor. Irina (and Eleanor too, though secretly) becomes obsessed with the story of these murders, intent on trying to find out everything that happened. Meanwhile an Observer, unnamed and possibly paranormal, watches over the newest family to enter the house, and as new characters are introduced, the web of coincidence begins to tighten around them all, trapping them within events both past and present. A suspenseful and occasionally darkly funny book. (Graywolf Press)

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Florence in Ecstasy by Jessie ChaffeeHannah is—was—a fundraiser at a museum in Boston. But it was there, for reasons she herself doesn’t understand, that she began to develop an eating disorder. While some may have complimented her at first, it became clear to others that something was very, very wrong. Hannah is now in Florence, Italy, where she’s attempting to recover, but her listing of what she’s eaten has not stopped, nor has the desire to cut close to the bone, as she puts it. Chaffee handles the tricky topic magnificently, and Hannah defies stereotypes of eating disordered women. As she begins to gain strength and confidence through boating and a possible relationship with a man, Hannah also becomes obsessed by the starving saints of Italy’s history, and her warring desires tear her up inside… but perhaps these wounds will heal into a better, stronger Hannah. A fantastic debut with gorgeous language and a dreamy locale. (The Unnamed Press)

The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories by Penelope LivelyOne of the wonderful things about short story collections like Penelope Lively’s is their diversity of settings. The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories includes a story that takes place in Roman Pompeii almost two thousand years ago; another that takes place through interviews of a public intellectual; yet another occurs during a European road trip, and so on. Lively’s writing is poignantly funny, and the theme seems to be one we can all relate to: the existential misunderstanding of one another and the impossibility of changing this fact. Managing to juggle the light and dark as only the most skilled can, Lively’s collection is well worth your time and emotions. (Viking)

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi KoulMany of us have been eagerly awaiting Buzzfeed Culture Writer Scaachi Koul’s new book of essays. Partly because we already love her writing and want more, and partly because, well, the title of this book is epic. Can we agree it’s epic? It’s epic. Anyway, Koul’s essays—about family, rape culture, race, and more—are what you’d expect: clever, absorbing, often quite funny and sometimes terribly sad and even rage-inducing. Unafraid to speak her mind, Koul’s writing is one that many of us crave and are so thankful for, and this essay collection is sure to make its way into the cultural history of our moment. While she is an author whose words will speak more to millennials, there is something to be gained from her writing for all. (Picador)

Touch by Courtney MaumWhat if you have predicted all recent movements of our society’s turn towards increased technology only to discover that your next prediction is quite the opposite? This is the reality of trend forecaster Sloane Jacobson, who predicted the swiping motion you may be using to scroll through this very article. She’s also staunchly anti-procreation and is hired to speak about the future of what we’ll make instead of the whole making humans from scratch thing. But just as her chosen life-partner is turning against the notion of touch, publishing a viral op-ed about how sex will stop being of the body—only virtual—in the future, Sloane’s predictive abilities are telling her that humanity’s next phase will be anti-tech and pro-touch. What will she do to both maintain her career and return to in-personism? A smart novel about a topic we grapple with daily. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

The Leavers by Lisa KoPeilan, or Polly to Americans, goes to work one day at the nail salon; she doesn’t come home. Fast forward: her son, Deming Guo, is put into foster care, raised by white college professors as Daniel Wilkinson. Rewind: Peilan, unmarried, gives birth to her son in China and, in an attempt to flee the life of an unmarried mother in her village, pays to be smuggled, undocumented, into the United States. As the book moves back and forth between Deming Guo’s past and future, Lisa Ko paints in vivid detail the decisions Peilan makes and Daniel Wilkinson’s descent into addiction and haunting memories he has been asked to forget. A stirring and important book that is well-deserving of the praise it’s garnering. (Algonquin Books)

Living in the Weather of the World by Richard BauschRichard Bausch is already well-known for his mastery of the short form and in this volume, he doesn’t disappoint. Dealing with issues ranging from sexual orientation to physical abuse, the stories take on topics that we’re still working our way through as a society, but they don’t act as lessons or feel ripped from the headlines. Instead, each tale is handled with grace and compassion, with its characters often remaining in terribly sad states but having still seen a glimmer of something beautiful. The weather of the title remains a theme in that the stories deal often with elements outside of our control and how we choose to accept them. This is a book you’ll want to snuggle up with, along with a pack of Kleenex. (Knopf)

The Bright Hour by Nina RiggsPoet Nina Riggs passed away in late February of this year, but she left behind a beautiful gift. The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying explores Riggs’ life as she discovers, aged only 38, that the small spot of breast cancer found a year earlier has been deemed terminal. Mother to two boys and married to the love of her life, Riggs has a good life—but not one she’d like to give up. As she struggles with chemo, with caring for her sons, with loving her husband, she writes her way out and through the experience. A heartrending reminder of life’s worthiness from the descendent of Ralph Waldo Emerson, this is a beautiful time-capsule of Riggs’ experiences. (Simon and Schuster)

Give A Girl a Knife by Amy ThielenAmy Thielen grew up in the epicenter of fast food and french fries, with a mother who loved cooking (dramatically). But when she and her boyfriend (and later husband) Aaron decide to try living largely off the land, her relationship to food changes, even as they move back and forth between the New York City kitchens she works in and their beloved Minnesota cabin. As her star rises in New York, Thielen thinks about her desires and wishes in her culinary career and finds that her aspirations are not the kind of stardom attributed to master chefs of haute cuisine. Instead, she makes a kind of peace with herself and her history and returns to her roots in the cookbooks we already know her for. (Clarkson Potter)

The Dinner Party by Joshua FerrisWhile all of these stories have been published before, often in places you may have encountered them, seeing them grouped together gives them new depth and furthers their meaning. In an age where the privileged can plan their lives to a T, surprises and coincidences play tricks on corrupt and bitter protagonists, laying waste to expectations. Tales of divorce and marriages falling apart weave together a complex understanding of human emotion that surpasses the family drama settings and reminds us why Joshua Ferris is a talent to be reckoned with. (Little, Brown)

Lilli de Jong by Janet BentonLilli de Jong is the last woman you’d ever picture ending up in her situation—because we’ve been taught to think that quiet Quaker women cannot possibly succumb to a single moment of Godly passion. Yet that is what has happened, and in the diary notebooks that Janet Benton has composed, we find Lilli’s descent in status and life matching her mind’s ascent. A white woman in the late 1800s, she finds that there is no safety net for her to fall into; no real possibilities for redemption; and it is sheer luck and random acts of dubious kindness that often lead her to her and her baby’s next meal. As Lilli’s ideas of the world expand, a thread of conscious intersectional feminism emerges as a kind of thought process that can be learned. A brilliantly quiet novel with a spine of steel. (Nan A. Talese)

How to Be Human by Paula CocozzaPaula Cocozza’s brilliant debut is an incredible addition to her already impressive career as a features writer for the Guardian. In this beautiful book, Mary meets a fox, and what unfolds is possibly a love story, possibly a story of madness, possibly a story of vivid and beautiful imagination and a clever coping mechanism, and possibly all three at the same time. Mary’s life is somewhat ashambles—she’s on leave from work, her ex-fiance is coming back into her life, and her neighbor’s baby shows up on her doorstep, but amidst it all is Fox. As Mary develops a relationship with him, she is becoming more of herself—or possibly less, depending on your perspective. A gorgeous tale with gripping prose. (Metropolitan Books)


Photography: Ryan Deshon; Prop Styling: Abbe Wright

About Ilana Masad

ILANA MASAD is a queer writer of fiction, nonfiction, and criticism. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, an interview podcast featuring fiction writers, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers, comes out May 2020.

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