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Six Furlough Fiction Reads

I live in DC, and I have a lot of friends who are furloughed thanks to the federal budget impasse. I am sure that some of you guys are getting restless at home with all the unexpected downtime. (Once your closets are cleaned out and you’ve gone to the gym, what are you supposed to do with your time?) While I hope for everyone’s sake that the furlough ends soon, in case it extends another week or two, here are some books to consider picking up while you’re at home. They aren’t terribly long, so you should be able to finish one or two before you go back to work, and they are engrossing enough to keep your mind off the annoying situation on Capitol Hill keeping you from work.

Six Furlough Fiction Reads

1. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. This one just came out, and I just started it, so I don’t have a review yet to link to. But Lahiri’s other books are wonderful (The Namesake is my favorite), and this one is also supposed to be great. Check out Swapna’s review at S.Krishna’s Books. She is an East Asian fiction expert, so she knows of which she blogs. If you haven’t read The Namesake yet, that’s another great furlough read. You could even make a whole day of it and rent the movie afterwards – here’s my take on Book vs. Movie: The Namesake.

2. Labor Day by Joyce Maynard. This isn’t Maynard’s latest novel, but I really liked it and think it’d make an excellent furlough read. It’s about a long weekend, told through the eyes of a 13 year-old boy whose mother has taken in a fugitive. Labor Day is sad and haunting but memorable. Bonus: it’s being made into a movie with Kate Winslet due out at the end of the year. Hopefully it will NOT be a furlough movie.

3. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. I loved this book (as have millions of others). If you missed it in 2010, it’s the story of an immigrant girl from Hong Kong who toils away in a New York City sweatshop while trying to learn English and ultimately get accepted to college.  Girl in Translation is heartbreaking and eye-opening, and would be a good book to get your mind off your own problems.

4. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. I read this one last fall, and it has really stayed with me. It’s about a dystopian world in which the earth’s rotation has slowed down. The Age of Miracles is one of the most creative books I’ve ever read. Walker’s depiction of the gradual changes brought on by the slowdown, and the ways in which people reacted to those changes, was both realistic and totally original. It’s a stressful read, but again, it will take your mind off the furlough.

5. Anything by Jennifer Haigh, but in particular The Condition and Baker Towers. I love everything this woman has ever written, but if you’re just starting out with Haigh, try those first. They are deeply involving and moving novels that suck you in with measured prose and perfectly paced storytelling.

6.  Finally, you can read a debut novel BY a furloughed government worker, Michael Landweber. We is his highly creative book about a fortysomething who finds that he can go back in time into the mind of his seven-year self, thus presenting the opportunity to prevent a terrible event that befell his sister. It’s a quick, exhilarating read by a promising new writer.

So while you’re passing the hours at home trying not to check your Blackberry (yes, Blackberry – this is the government), give these books a try. And then let me know what you thought.


WE by Michael Landweber

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go back in time and talk to an earlier version of yourself? What would you say, and what future events might you try to change or prevent? Vacation read #3 was We, a debut novel by Michael Landweber that answers those questions. In We, forty-two year-old Ben finds himself in the brain of his seven year-old self (“Binky”), trying to prevent a tragedy that happened at that time and irrevocably changed his family and his childhood. This is not my typical read; I tend to stick to very literal, realistic books. But the premise of We was very interesting, and raised a lot of questions that were fun to explore.

When Ben first finds himself within Binky, he observes, “I still clung to my memories, my experience, my thoughts. My essence of who I was at age forty-two. It was all still there. I had not lost myself; I had been transplanted. But it didn’t make sense. How could we both be here?” Eventually, he comes to grips with “where” he is and focuses his efforts on convincing a skeptical, suspicious seven year-old that he has the power to prevent something bad from happening to his beloved older sister.

There were a number of poignant elements in We: Ben seeing his family through the eyes of a seven year-old again, knowing that they were headed for sadness and estrangement; Binky trying to cling to his innocence while his older self (often inadvertently) prematurely pushes him into adulthood; Ben’s more mature understanding of the inward battles his family members were privately facing, of which he was clueless during his childhood. I thought Landweber did a good job of juxtaposing adulthood and childhood and pinpointing the ways in which our perspectives change over time.

Less successful for me were the forays into psychology (id battling superego) and the physical descriptions of the process by which Ben entered Binky’s consciousness – caves and tunnels and darkness – which were distracting and hard to follow (again, I like my books very literal). But those were thankfully pretty limited.

Overall, We is thought-provoking, touching, imaginative, and a promising debut from Landweber.