This year, I received a pleasant surprise: a local library held a book sale on my birthday. I got to spend the afternoon of my thirtieth birthday wandering through stacks of dusty paperbacks and crumbling hardcovers. There aren’t many places I’d rather be — a literary landmark in Europe, maybe, or the audience of a Broadway show (I’ve been dying to see the revival of Pippin) are close contenders, but I’ve always felt at home scrounging around heaps of used books and was thrilled to celebrate the anniversary of my existence in this manner.
At book sales, I tend to gravitate toward classics, sci-fi/fantasy, literary criticism, and children’s books. I glance at historical nonfiction (for my stepfather), sports- and health-themed stuff (for my husband), and manga (for my brother, and occasionally for myself). I always avoid the romance section like the plague; it’s one of those genres that I wouldn’t want to be seen reading — or even browsing. I’m not sure wehre this stigma comes from. When I was growing up, one of my aunts used to plant herself on a lawn chair at family gatherings, fat, Fabio-emblazoned paperback in hand, and barely look up for the rest of the day. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized what she was doing — in essence, reading porn while her nieces and nephews unsuspectingly played tag inches away. Maybe I thought that was tacky? Or maybe I prefer my sex scenes to be written by more “literary” authors? (Side note: Every year, my friend sends me the finalists for The Guardian’s Bad Sex award and we pick our favorites. It’s becoming a beloved tradition.)
Okay, so, anyway. I don’t read romance novels. Don’t know why. But somehow this book got shoved into a box underneath the romance table, and the cover caught my eye. The first two authors listed were Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Aimee Bender (I could read these two women all day), so I figured it was worth the gamble and added it to my stack of to-be-purchased books.
This is one of the best collections I’ve read recently, right up there with The Best American Short Stories 2012 and Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. “Selling the General” was a re-read for me; I first encountered it in A Visit From the Goon Squad. I forget how good Jennifer Egan is until I read her again; she surprises me anew every time. “Love Machine” was fantastically twisted; “Embrace” was heart-stopping; and “The Epiphany Branch” was funny, politically incorrect, and touching. I loved the anachronistic “Joan, Jeanne, La Pucelle, Maid of Orléans” and couldn’t get enough of “Gabriella, My Heart” — it was like a novel crammed into twenty pages, in the best possible way. The only disappointment was that the last two stories were possibly the weakest, so the collection didn’t end on a high note for me. That’s not to say that the two final stories were bad, because they weren’t; they just weren’t as mind-blowing as the others.
All in all: worth reading, worth owning, and opened my eyes to a bevy of amazing, read-more-by-her authors.