Fish in Exile by Vi Khi Nao
Vi Khi Nao’s striking debut novel Fish in Exile proves that there is no right or wrong way to grieve the death of a child — or to write about it. Catholic and Ethos Romulus are still reeling from the sudden loss of their young twins two years ago, straining to right themselves and their relationship in the wake of the unthinkable. While Catholic has withdrawn from her husband, herself, and the world around her (making a curious exception for an affair with the next-door neighbor), Ethos flails about, struggling to find any concrete way to cope. And so he writes cryptic letters to distant locales (“Dear Ithaca… Connecticut… Moscow… Rome”), stuffs his briefs full of daisies as a come-on to his wife (“she sobs her way into the bathroom”), argues with his semi-incestuous mother, and constructs a sprawling, serpentine aquarium that makes his house more an ocean than a home. It’s there that Catholic and Ethos “walk” their surrogate children — two fish named Pistachio and Dogfish, clothed in dresses and led through the water by leash — the logic of this endeavor never being made entirely clear. But such is the bewildering nature of grief, which Nao captures with remarkable aplomb. Because, for all the weightiness of its subject matter, Fish in Exile is also surprisingly light on its feet: eccentric, absurd, and delightfully wry. This book wriggles with so much originality and life, it'll have you hooked from the very start.
In the Company of Women by Grace Bonney
Written by Design*Sponge editor Grace Bonney, In the Company of Women profiles more than 100 women who run their own creative businesses. The first thing you notice when reading this book is how truly, truly diverse the women featured are — there are pages and pages of wise words from brown women and queer women and trans women and disabled women and older women, something that shouldn't be revolutionary in the year 2016 but somehow still is. They each share their childhood aspirations, the best advice they've ever gotten, their professional challenges, and more. Their words are genuinely inspiring and just leave you feeling good. It's the kind of book to flip through whenever you need a boost, or to give as a gift to nieces, cousins, and younger sisters who you want to remind of their power and potential.
Cabo de Gata by Eugen Ruge
Eugen Ruge’s second book Cabo de Gata is for anyone who’s ever wanted to just up and get away. After all, that’s what the unnamed narrator does in the wake of his mother’s death and the dissolution of a 10-year marriage: He sells his belongings, packs his bags, and flees newly reunified Berlin for Spain. He seeks aimless freedom and space to start writing his great novel — and finds as much (mostly) in the sleepy coastal village of Cabo de Gata. There, our narrator struggles with loneliness, the language, and the locals, but also finds peace in the simplicity of a new routine. He’s pared his life down to the bare necessities — afternoon coffee at the billiards bar; brief, bizarre exchanges with tourists and townspeople; a tenuous friendship with an itinerant cat — and learns that all this might actually be enough. Ruge has a knowing eye for the life and rhythms of a traveler, capturing the narrator’s daily rituals with detailed, delicate care. The cumulative effect is both tranquil and transportive, making Cabo de Gata a lovely little meditation on self-discovery and escape.
The Boat Rocker by Ha Jin
The Boat Rocker is Ha Jin’s eighth novel and very clearly the work of a writer in rare form. It centers on reporter Feng Danlin’s dogged pursuit of an elaborate international plot — involving his ex-wife, the Chinese government, and a blockbuster book deal boondoggle. Author Yan Haili and her publishers claim she’s written a soon-to-be bestseller poised to take the literary world by storm, but Danlin knows first-hand that his ex-wife's writing simply isn't up to snuff — and certainly not worthy of a rumored Nobel Prize nod. His investigation brings more peculiarities of the sham to light — and earn him popular and critical acclaim — but also throw Danlin’s personal life into disarray. Who's colluding with Haili to bring him down? And why? Will his pursuit of the truth be his own undoing? Ha Jin tempers his melodrama with just the right amount of comedy, in addition to broader musings on international relations, truth, belonging, loyalty, and love, making The Boat Rocker at once thought-provoking and a pleasure to read.
Moonglow by Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon's Moonglow is one of the best books of 2016. I love Chabon when he's wholeheartedly geeking out, and in Moonglow, there are plenty of chewy, fascinating topics for him to geek out about: storytelling, family drama, World War II, rockets, python-hunting, and so on. Combining the best parts of fiction and memoir, Moonglow is Chabon at his finest.