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Words in Winter

On the morning of the Women's March I was walking down the middle of Michigan Avenue in Chicago marveling about the huge crowd and chatting about books with a young writer friend named Duncan.  He had just finished (and loved) Zadie Smith's fine new novel and shared that winter always created a yearning in him for serious reading.  I agreed with him, but remarked that since it was 50 degrees that morning in late January, perhaps we would need to find a colder climate.  Duncan reminded me that since climate change is just a hoax foisted on us by the Chinese (according to our spanking new President), we will be okay for a few more winters.  That being the case I shared with him, and now with you, three books that snugly fit our criteria.  The first two are in the store now, and the third (and we will have autographed first editions of it) arrives in mid-February.

Two years ago Rachel Cusk wrote a wonderful short novel, Outline, which won much praise and comment because she insisted on giving the novel as a form a new feeling.  Her protagonist, a writer we meet on a plane to Athens where she is teaching a workshop, becomes a facilitator and encourager of the stories of everyone she encounters.  Her name, Faye, is mentioned once and she reveals little of herself and the novel does not move forward in a conventional way, but rather is a series of beautifully wrought vignettes about life's convolutions and struggles.  It turns out that it was the first of a projected trilogy and the second installment, Transit is equally good if not better.  Faye (again her name is uttered only once) is now in London with her two sons, a single mom who is renovating a crummy old apartment.  Each scene we meet someone new with whom she has a richly detailed and complicated conversation about the art and the struggle of living.  Again, she shares next to nothing about herself, but her mind is so fertile and alive to the stories of others and seeking their attempted solutions to life's conundrums, that we finish the book grateful for her hungers and challenged to examine our own choices. Read more here and here

Human Acts, a novel by the Korean writer Han Kang is a harrowing and essential work.  I have read few books that have moved and disturbed me more, and made me ponder the human impulse to inflict terrible harm on others.  The focus of the book is the massacre in 1980 of 600 students and others, including children, in the South Korean city of Gwangju.  The massacre was carried out by government troops and the news was suppressed for years.  Rather than write a conventional novel of the event and its aftermath, Kang writes six chapters, each set in a different year, with only the first occurring during the hideous event.  Each chapter focusses on a different person who was either a participant, a victim or a family member.  The second indelible chapter is told by the ghost/spirit of a teenage boy killed early in the uprising.  Kang, who won the Man Booker International Prize for her last book, The Vegetarian, writes in a dispassionate and tight style that because it seems to want to avoid emotion, absolutely shatters you page by page.  The resilience of the victims and their open and on-going love for each other, the search for meaning, the horror of inescapable memory are all examined and left for us to continue to ponder.  In the final astonishing chapter Kang herself is the focus.  We learn that she grew up in Gwangju and her family moved when she was 9, just a few months prior to the massacre.  One of the young victims, a teenage boy, was part of the family who moved into her house.  Kang shares  her struggle to piece together the boy's story, and honor his memory. This is a remarkable achievement that will stay in my heart forever. Read more here.

George Saunders, one of the finest short story writers of our time, has written his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, and it is haunted and haunting. He read that Abraham Lincoln re-visited the crypt of his beloved 11-year old son Willie twice during the night after his interment in February of 1862. Using this fact as a departing point Saunders mixes actual journal entries from that week with the imagined interior  thoughts of Lincoln and of the dead Willie whose soul is still in his body and yearns for connection with his devastated father. Saunders also creates a group of "souls" who are haunting the cemetery, believing themselves to be caught between life and death, and it is through these voices that he deftly draws a portrait of that complicated time in American life.  The Bardo of the title is from the Tibetan tradition of Purgatory.  This book, so full of heart and humor and deep sadness is another great step in the career of one of our best writers, and as it's one long night of talk draws to a close we are left to our thoughts, moved and changed  by what we witnessed. Read a review HERE, and an interview with Scott Simon on Saunders, and Colson Whitehead on Lincoln in the Bardo. We will gave autographed copies available in the store, don't miss this one.

So light a fire, pull up your favorite chair, lose yourself in these words, and let it snow.