With summer about to officially start, it’s only natural to reach for the laziest, trashiest book you can find. But if you can bear it, we recommend keeping your brain turned on for one more smart read: a stunning debut story collection by Filipino-American Mia Alvar.
In In the Country, Alvar gives voice to people other books tend to forget. Her version of the 9/11 narrative, for example, is told from the perspective of a World Trade Center night janitor who has grown unusually attached to a man whose office she cleans. In another story, a quiet pharmacist returns to his home country to visit his ailing father with a pocketfull of stolen drugs and dubious intentions.
Alvar was born in the Philippines but grew up mostly in the oil-producing nation of Bahrain, and some of her most fascinating stories take place there. They detail the two kinds of Filipinos who tend to end up in Middle Eastern countries--bourgeois engineers and working-class servants--and the weird social structure they typically fall into.
Story collections are tricky business, and only the best of the best (think Jhumpa Lahiri) can craft such a cohesive narrative out of separately formed worlds. Alvar nails it on her first try.