Margaret's Picks

Margaret Sweeney is a native Vermonter and a recent graduate of Bennington College, where she studied literature and writing. She loves fiction, most specifically short stories, and was a fiction editor for plain china, Bennington's anthology of undergraduate writing. She is so excited to take on the role of First Editions Director!





Lincoln in the Bardo Cover Image
ISBN: 9780812995343
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Published: Random House - February 14th, 2017

I fell in love with this book after only two or three pages. It was something about the rhythm and the unique voicing. The novel recounts the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie in 1863. However, it is not your average historical novel; it reads more like a long form poem, or an experimental play, and though Lincoln and his son are at its center, the heart of the novel is the chorus of souls in the graveyard where much of the action takes place. As these souls recount their tales of love, loss, pain and humor, tales that run parallel to Lincoln’s own story, a sense of collective history emerges, a sense of history, in this case the Civil War era, as it should be told. It is a must read for lovers of historical fiction, alternative histories, and unconventional narratives, and an important model for a new era of genre-bending fiction.

Universal Harvester Cover Image
ISBN: 9780374282103
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Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux - February 7th, 2017

This second novel by Mountain Goats frontman Darnielle centers on a young man named Jeremy who works in a video store in rural Nevada in the late 1990s and has recently lost his mother in an accident. He discovers that strange, unsettling footage has been mysteriously spliced onto certain rental tapes, and thus begins his hunt for answers: who put the footage there in the first place, and why? This novel actually has a lot in common with Darnielle’s music, which often has layers of complex emotion and narrative hidden beneath a deceptively jovial exterior. As we read and the layers of mystery peel away, we find that the multiple characters and narratives that emerge have more in common than we might have initially thought, that even people separated by vast chasms of time and experience can be united by their experiences of grief. An inventive and suspenseful read.

The Signal Flame Cover Image
ISBN: 9781501126376
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Published: Scribner Book Company - January 24th, 2017

This book is quiet in many ways—the language is sparse, and the characters are soft spoken and reserved, tucked away in heavily wooded and secluded Endless Mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania during the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War. But its quietness also yields a certain power, especially given the many tragedies that befall the novel’s central family, the Konars. Rather than focus directly on the gravity of each situation, Krivak lovingly crafts a story that focuses on the small moments of interaction, the little scenes that make up a family’s experience of love and loss, some of these gestures wordless—a lovingly crafted wooden chest to house letters, a late night cup of tea. A moving and immersive winter read.

The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead: Stories Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062490759
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Published: Ecco Press - January 17th, 2017

I haven’t been as interested in or riveted by a short story collection in quite a while. Over the course of this collection, Benz brings to life a diverse and life-filled chorus of voices, and no two are even close to the same. From an adolescent boy in the inner city to a sixteenth-century monk, there is no shortage of variety. And yet, despite the consistent sense of contrast, Benz manages to unify characters with their experiences of violence, their lives on the fringes of society, and their questioning and rebuking social and moral norms. I have a feeling Benz will have a lot to say and a lot more voices to inhabit in the years to come.

Swing Time Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594203985
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Published: Penguin Press - November 15th, 2016

Zadie Smith’s latest oscillates between two central narratives: the narrator’s reminiscences about taking dance lessons with her childhood friend Tracey, and her later professional and personal relationship with a do-gooding pop singer. As a child, the (unnamed) narrator is always second best to Tracey, whose physical skill and presence is captivating. She can’t find her own image in the old dance films she is entranced with, and even as an adult she finds herself somehow overshadowed by both the woman she works for and the underrepresented people she is determined to help.  This is, therefore, a sweeping tale of identity. Both racial identity (she is of mixed descent) and otherwise—it begs the question, how do we find ourselves when there is no map to begin with? 

Float Cover Image
ISBN: 9781101946848
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Published: Knopf Publishing Group - October 25th, 2016

I am probably the world’s biggest Anne Carson fan, so I may admit to a little bias, but her newest project is especially exciting to me. This new collection is presented as a series of bifold chapbooks on beautiful paper. They are meant to be read in any order, and in any combination. Carson has always straddled the line between classical scholar and experimental poet, so avid readers won’t be surprised to find that in addition to poems she has also included pieces of lectures, notes, and ephemera. A treat that can be read again and again, and comes as a beautiful box set that makes a great looking gift.

The Mothers Cover Image
ISBN: 9780399184512
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Published: Riverhead Books - October 11th, 2016

It is Nadia Turner’s final year of high school in a small, religious, largely black community in Southern California. She lives alone with her father, following her mother's recent suicide. Grief-stricken, she seeks refuge in the friendship of the local pastor's son, and gets pregnant. The decisions and actions that follow have a far-flung impact on Nadia, her relationship to her community and those close to her, and her own sense of identity. In a political climate that groups so many people into hard and fast categories, this novel is sorely needed. Nadia is many things: she is a young black woman, a lover, a mourner, and a scholar. She is eternally connected to the "mothers" who came before her (and whose narratives punctuate the novel) but also seeks to forge her own path into the future. Bennett's masterful narration makes us see human identity as multifarious and complicated, that each and every one of us are products of our own unique histories, heritages, tragedies, and dreams, and that by accepting every part of ourselves we can become more compassionate people.

We Found a Hat Cover Image
By Jon Klassen, Jon Klassen (Illustrator)
ISBN: 9780763656003
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Published: Candlewick Press (MA) - October 11th, 2016

What happens when two turtles find a hat and it looks good on both of them? Naturally, because they’re nice turtles who like to keep things fair, they decide that no one should get the hat. But one of them just can’t keep his mind off it. And therein lies the conflict of Klassen’s latest. With a subtly hilarious plot conveyed mostly through the turtles’ eyes, and gorgeous desert-toned illustrations, this book is sure to become a laugh-out-loud classic for kids of all ages. There are also lots of good lessons to be learned about sharing and friendship.

Envelope Poems Cover Image
By Emily Dickinson, Jen Bervin (Editor), Marta Werner (Editor)
ISBN: 9780811225823
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Published: New Directions Publishing Corporation - October 4th, 2016

A widely misunderstood poet, Emily Dickinson was so much more than the recluse dressed in white that springs to mind when her name is mentioned. She did prefer to be at home, yes, but she loved it fiercely. She was an essential participant in the daily activities of the Dickinson household, all the while scribbling lines on anything she could make a pencil mark on, including envelopes, some of which made their way to close friends, and some of which were later found with her other papers. The short poems on these envelopes are seeds of deep truth and examples of her very active process, which often included trying out several word choices on the fly; they are evidence of a person who was very much a passionate citizen of the world, very much alive. An essential for anyone who loves poetry.

Nicotine Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062441706
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Published: Ecco Press - October 4th, 2016

Penny Baker is a recent business school graduate living in her father’s New York City apartment. When her father dies suddenly after a struggle with terminal illness Penny is evicted. Grief-stricken and aimless, she seeks refuge in his childhood home in Jersey City, which she discovers has been taken over by a group of anarchist squatters. All activists invested in various vague causes, the ragtag group of roommates has christened the house “Nicotine” after their collective support for smoker’s rights, the one cause they apparently can all agree on. Penny is taken aback at first—she has always tried to be “conventional,” but these colorful characters—Jazz, a free-loving and fiercely honest modern femme fatale, and Rob, the asexual bike mechanic she falls in love with, to name a couple—become her friends, and help her come to terms with and her unconventional family history. This tongue-in-cheek, often laugh-out-loud novel paints a complex portrait of the so-called “millennial” that is sure to stimulate conversation.

Anybody: Poems Cover Image
ISBN: 9780393247794
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Published: W. W. Norton & Company - September 20th, 2016

In just under one-hundred pages, poet Ari Banias manages to reach a scope that I, as a writer myself, can only dream of. At first glance this book is an intensely personal chronicle of gender-identity transformation, and it is that, but this exploration also invariably brings up the question of what the “self” is, and how it can be reconciled with a collective “we” in various ways—political, familial, cultural. The poet CA Conrad wrote of this book that it “courageously makes room for everybody,” and I think that is just right. Only the most compassionate poet can endeavor so tirelessly to bring their work beyond their own experience, the “I,” especially when their own sense of self is so fragile and uncertain. This book is not to be missed.

Commonwealth Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062491794
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Published: Harper - September 13th, 2016

I am very often sold on books that meditate on childhood, and also books that meditate on the writing process. This novel does both. A quietly and deftly written time capsule that spans multiple decades, this book chronicles the events that blossom out of one small moment that alters the lives of two families forever.  The Cousins and Keating children, united by shared experiences of divorce, re-marriage, and tragedy, form a unique bond, and the narrative telescopes between them and their parents, providing the reader with an ever mutating sense of emotional complexity. And when, by chance, the family saga gets woven into a novel,  a new slew of questions—about the sanctity of memory and forgiveness—are pushed to the forefront. This is a highly relatable novel full of heart that everyone should read this fall.

The Argonauts Cover Image
ISBN: 9781555977078
Availability: Special Order
Published: Graywolf Press - May 5th, 2015

— This book is hard to peg down, genre-wise, and this fact only emboldens it and makes it more powerful. In a whirlwind 160 pages, Nelson meditates on motherhood, writing, and life with her fluidly gendered partner. At once a poem, a lyric essay, and an academic study, it not only attests to her deft poetic hand, but her whip-smart ability to participate in traditional academia while simultaneously subverting it. This is one of those rare works of literature where the writing itself becomes a product of its subject matter: constantly shifting, bending, and even questioning itself. A must-read for anyone interested in gender theory, motherhood, psychology, and well, humans, really.

Salt Houses Cover Image
ISBN: 9780544912588
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Published: Houghton Mifflin - May 2nd, 2017

I have never felt as immediately transported to another place as I was when I began Salt Houses, which inserts the reader into Nablus in the 1960s. The poetic descriptions, the graceful motions of a wedding ceremony—I was transfixed, and I felt I had begun to understand what it might be to love a place so beautiful. Which is perhaps why I was so deeply affected when the Yacoub family has it abruptly pulled out from under them. And as they are uprooted and separated time and time again, it becomes clear that this book’s ultimate and bittersweet beauty lies not solely in its depiction of the many places it touches, but in its depiction of the uniquely painful experience of the displaced, to carry and salvage fragments of identity across generations and borders. A book that transports in so many different ways is too vital to be missed.