The Bear is a dreamy dispatch from the end of the world. In Andrew Krivak’s palimpsest novel, the reassertion of nature over the bones of human civilization is a dignified and regretless process.
The girl and her father may very well be the last people on Earth. An ecological disaster left most of the world uninhabitable and pushed some creatures toward fearful new incarnations, but sheltered by their mountain, father and daughter feel safe.
In the girl’s early years, her father sets about teaching her how to be self-sufficient: how to fish and how to hunt (and how to do both with the utmost respect for the creatures that sustain you), how to make clothes and shelter, and how to battle the aching loneliness that comes with being the last. By the time an accident leaves the girl orphaned, she is also prepared.
Aided by a bear and a wild cat, the girl undertakes a weather-threatened trek back to the place of her birth, hoping to put her father’s ashes to rest beside her mother. Communing with wild creatures and helped along by the majesty and magic of the wild, she presses on through breaks in the ice, near starvation, and injuries. In a cave beside her furry protectors, she forges connections meant to last through lifetimes.
The novel concentrates less on the tragedies of humanity’s disappearance than it does on the interconnectedness of all beings. Within this story: if the last human goes out nobly, having treated the world around them with respect, all has not been lost. The girl and her father are worthy guides through their latter day landscape, as are the creatures that address the girl through an otherworldly haze. Triumphant to its last breath, The Bear is a lovely, unforgettable experience.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (December 27, 2019)
In his compelling collection of stories—most only a few pages long—Michael Credico marshals bold, creative images to depict a grim Midwest dominated by slaughterhouses and fast food restaurants. While not much happens and characters see little hope of redemption, this absurdist fiction shimmers with startling glimpses of people at the margins who confront their limitations.
Despite the book’s dark themes—“It was the heartland, and winter was always coming”—the text engages the empathy and intellect. Its stories shift fluidly between the real and the surreal, pushing audiences to puzzle out their meanings: of a baby caught in the glue trap, a mother who sleeps with tigers, a man navigating a ghost town on a too-tall horse, and shapeshifting women who (almost inevitably) become fish. Rarely have bleak, “dead-end” lives been described with such boundless imagination.
In “Killing Square,” a worker at a slaughterhouse is inexplicably promoted to an “inside” job and stumbles through his new responsibilities while caring for his dying father. His coworkers’ indifferent slaughter of the animals serves as an aching metaphor for the struggle of both the man and his father. In “Pines,” a boy is devoured by and becomes a bear; in high school, he struggles to make eye contact and viciously bites at his claws, “scared and unsure.” In “Postwar: Lake Michigan,” a man considers the parallels between a plane that crashed in Lake Michigan and his wife’s cancer diagnosis:
One of the would-be rescuers keeps looking at the sky. I wonder if we have the same lonely feeling, if we’re thinking what the pilot thought when he set the throttle to full.
Echoing the work of Franz Kafka and Joseph Heller, the intense, slippery images animating these powerful stories bring to life alienated characters and are challenging and surprising at every turn.
KRISTEN RABE (December 27, 2019)
Just before their wedding, Julia’s husband-to-be Aaron died in a freak hiking accident. Now she’s a “wianceé” caught between grief and new passions. In Rachel Gladstone’s frothy Southern romantic comedy, The Weekend Wedding Assistant, Julia zigzags toward healing.
When Julia lands a job as a wedding assistant at Whitfield Chapel—the site of her own ill-fated nuptials—her friends think it’s a bad idea. But helping others brings Julia perspective and revives her belief that love is possible. Between her job’s minor mayhem and a recovery process that seesaws between being wacky and touching, conflicts arise, including Julia’s attraction to Aaron’s best friend, Linc, who’s otherwise involved.
Julia also falls for Garrett, a photojournalist, whose red flags she ignores. How the right couple eventually connects involves a series of sudden crises and breakups that unfold with convenient speed, though paying tribute to the fantasy of destined lovers.
The men in Julia’s story have dreamboat looks and sparse backgrounds; her friends are savvy belles whose roles are limited to that of sounding boards. Julia’s response to grief is more variegated; she goes on an over-the-top online shopping binge; has trouble sleeping; avoids clearing out Aaron’s belongings; and dreams of Aaron, mining her visions for cues on how to live without him. Though Julia often reacts to situations with exclamations and frenzy, her mixed emotions are genuine.
Nashville’s social scene, details about the weddings that Julia attends, and sweet interactions between Julia and her always helpful mother enrich the story. The Weekend Wedding Assistant is a story about figuring out who to become once you’re outside of defining relationships. Julia’s cheeky rules for living are laced throughout and culminate in the realization that “Miracles can happen. Miracles do happen!” It’s an uplifting message that never grows old.
KAREN RIGBY (December 27, 2019)
“It’s high time they stop killing our people,” says a reverend in the opening of Remembered. “If we don’t stop them now, it won’t ever stop.”
Edward Freeman has died, publicly, tragically, and too young, and a tempest is brewing on the streets, with a crowd gathering to protest another black life lost. This is where Yvonne Battle-Felton begins her tale, with a scene that feels devastatingly familiar. There will be no hashtag for Edward Freeman, however. The year is 1910, and only the community and his mother say his name—and the names of all who came before him.
Edward’s mother, Spring, and the ghost of her sister Tempe spend the next twenty-four hours at the hospital. As they bear witness to Edward’s transition out of the world of the living, they tell him the story of his family. With a book of newspaper clippings as their guide, they begin two generations back, with his grandmother, a free black woman, who’s stolen into slavery at age twelve. What follows is a legacy of resilience, told through the history of Edward’s formidable foremothers.
Remembered is stay-up-later-than-intended fiction. Its women are enthralling in their three-dimensionality, inspiring and flawed in equal measure. They demand investment from their first appearances, leaving no chance of turning away from their stories. As the tale unfolds, it becomes clear this is Spring’s story more than any other, and that all of the women live in her—even, through the power of magical realism, after their death.
Full of subtle magic, steady resilience, and characters you’ll feel like you know, Remembered is a force to be reckoned with. Potently of-the-moment, Yvonne Battle-Felton’s novel is both current and able to stand the test of time.
JESSIE HORNESS (December 27, 2019)
Essays on Travel and Place
Admit it: moving heavy bags and exhausted bodies through airport hallways, jostled by crowds of other harried, vacant-eyed travelers, is not fun. And these days, even budget travel is expensive and questionable. So why go? The essays in Joan Frank’s Try to Get Lost tackle this question as they bridge the gap between glossy brochures and the realities of the trip.
Focused on places whose ancientness, beauty, or poverty is staggering, these essays show how places can enrapture their visitors, flaws aside. Even conceding its snobbery and provincialism, racial strife, and dirty sidewalks, France wins Frank’s allegiance because of its careful attention to wine and food, its excellent health care, and its witty, courteous people who always seem to find nice things to do and nice ways to be.
Frank’s years of experience give her book a mature, sophisticated tone, even when it’s recalling the wonder of her days as a starry-eyed, fearless young traveler who, in her bones, felt immortal. Her essays are spiced with wry humor that skewers travelers’ illusions with examples of how “a traveler’s suffering starts after shutting the front door.” Mocking even the best-laid plans, Frank writes, “We travel expecting something. What we get is something else.”
Despite the ways that travel “beats us up,” Frank affirms that it provides the most passionate, permanent, and life-changing education available. “As a writer, a shiver still zings my spine when I spot the word ‘hotel,’” she writes. Along with revealing the workings of a curious writer’s mind, the book highlights the deeper questions lurking behind the travel urge: “Where should we be? Why?”
Whether sparkling with enthusiasm or turning downright curmudgeonly, the essays of Try to Get Lost record the ups and downs of travel with wit, insight, and unfailing honesty.
KRISTINE MORRIS (December 27, 2019)