Earlier this year, I realized that I had been reading fewer books by unfamiliar authors. This hasn’t happened because of a newly shortened attention span. My mental state hasn’t yet deteriorated into a series of electrocuted-frog twitches. True, Twitter is a huge time sink, but it hasn’t changed my neural wiring or anything.
No, here are the real reasons:
- As a writer and editor, I stare at words for hours and hours every day. At night I often need a break.
- During the last few years, I’ve grown into the mentality of a professional. This means that I’m tougher on other people’s books now than I used to be. I’m not necessarily proud of this.
- We’ve living in a golden era of television. Between Netflix and Amazon alone, we have hundreds of thousands of hours of high-quality filmed entertainment. For example, most fiction I’ve read recently can’t hold a candle to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, whose scenes are brilliantly written, and which won enough Emmy trophies to build an army.
Anyways, it hit me earlier in the summer that I missed that habit of adventurous reading. You know, the one that I’ve enjoyed most of my life.
So I assembled a list of books to read. Many websites such as Goodreads will help you curate a list like this, but I did it the old-fashioned way—on a Microsoft Word document. (Side note: Twenty-five years of market dominance, and Word still shows no signs of wearing out.)
I decided that the list would consist of either
- writers whom I’ve always known about but had never read
- writers whom I hadn’t read in the last ten years and had forgotten about.
Unfortunately, I discovered that my patience for other people’s fiction is still pretty thin. Again, I’m not proud of this. Several fiction titles I abandoned without finishing and won’t mention them here, with one exception.
Here are the six titles I enjoyed the most. All links Amazon US:
In so-called “literary fiction”, voice is everything. (Because plot usually doesn’t exist.) In Disgrace, the author’s voice is strong on the page—solid, serious, and with something always swimming just below the surface. Maybe that’s Coetzee’s Dutch Afrikaaner background, maybe that’s just his reported cantankerousness. Anyways, this book was appealing and weird and yet kind of off-kilter at the same time. This despite the fact that the first half of the story itself—a college professor who has an affair with a student and loses his job—felt incredibly tired. It made me think of Tom Wolfe’s admonition to writers to get the hell out of the ivory tower and see how people actually live for a change.
Halfway through, however, the story took a strange twist, and suddenly I found myself in a racially provocative sequence of scenes in rural South Africa involving the protagonist’s grown lesbian daughter. I was motivated to finish this one, and I think I can see why he won the Nobel Prize a few years back. It was unpredictable and fairly masterful, even if Coetzee doesn’t seem like the kind of guy I’d want to share a coffee with. Still, I’d definitely read another book by him. I remember Mark Sarvas enthusiastically recommending his title Summertime on his now-defunct blog The Elegant Variation.
My Misspent Youth, by Meghan Daum
For my money, Daum is the best essayist in America. I haven’t read another book of essays that were so nimble and supple. Her insights are as sharp as a diamond cutter’s tool, and each essay still feels contemporary. I say still, because it’s to my eternal shame that it took me nearly twenty goddamned years to finally get around to reading this book, her first.
My Misspent Youth is a collection of essays about Daum’s partly successful, partly agonizing time as a young person struggling in New York City, which ended when she fled to the hinterlands of Nebraska before the age of thirty. If you’re smart and educated and thoughtful and ambitious, and if you’ve ever moved to a new city as a twentysomething (and suffered financially for it), you’ll recognize yourself in these pages. I particularly loved “Variations on Grief”, her bitter essay about a friend who died young without having accomplished anything in his life. That was uniquely honest.
These days Daum apparently runs an occasional essay-writing class in New York. If her talent can rub off, I’d say don’t walk, but run to her doorstep, and beg for a sprinkling of that magic fairy dust.
A graphic novel about the murder of a young woman, and her boyfriend’s sense of grief as he goes to a friend’s house in Colorado to recover. I’m no expert on graphic novels, but I always enjoy them as long as nobody’s wearing colored tights, flying through the air, or shooting webs out of their palms.
Drnaso’s last book Beverly got a lot of attention, and though I don’t know that one, I can report that Sabrina is worth your time. The illustrations are pretty small and basic—honestly, there are better visual artists out there—but the story nonetheless had me turning the page. He’s not afraid to draw characters in mundane situations, which heightens suspense. He’s also not afraid to move to the next scene without resolving that tension. This may lead some people to derisively label the book “arty”, and make snide comparisons to David Lynch, but to me this unpredictability is a draw. It’s a story that takes its time and is not easily summarized.
I need two things from fiction. First, if it’s a story about a radically non-Western culture, I need someone from my own culture to serve as an interpreter. You know, a Virgil to be my guide. Second, I also prefer writers with strong authorial voices, who aren’t afraid to make statements of opinion in the book.
Neither of these preferences should come as any surprise, since both of these qualities define Ainsley Walker, the protagonist in my own Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series. Let’s be honest. In the end, much of fiction really just boils down to a matter of taste. This pisses off critics to no end, but it’s really true. That zombie apocalypse novel with the ugly cover may seem awful to you and me—but to a twelve-year-old boy who can count the total number of books he’s ever read on his left hand, that bloody zombie tale is going to be a great book. He’ll remember it for the rest of his life.
Unfortunately, this book didn’t have either of my two preferred qualities, so it wasn’t for me. Waiting is a story about a man in China who waited eighteen years to divorce so he could marry his nurse. Why did I include it on this list? Because Jin, who wrote the book in English, was born and raised in China. Holy Christ in a Happy Meal, is that all kinds of crazy talent. I mean, though I speak Spanish well, I can’t begin to imagine writing a professional-quality book in that language, much less winning the National Book Award for it. If he wrote Waiting by himself, Jin is otherworldly.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, by Ernest Hemingway
There’s nothing new I can say about Hemingway that hasn’t already been stated a thousand times by a thousand critics over the last century. What I can say is that I hadn’t read a word by him in a decade. I didn’t care much for his writing when I was younger, though that changed at age twenty-five, when I picked up A Moveable Feast, which stands to me as a supremely artistic way of telling a memoir, even if he didn’t finish it. (Or maybe because he didn’t finish it.)
Anyways, this particular title is a collection of various short stories, a couple of which were frankly boring, but most of which were vintage Hemingway, like the famous title story. Yes, he displays some sexism, and he chooses to draw women in a consistently negative light, but you should know that about him by now. Complaining about Hemingway’s machismo is like going to the hardware store and complaining that you can’t find any milk. You went to the wrong store.
As I was reading, however, I was fixated mostly on his style, trying to imagine how radical it must’ve looked to an America that was still in the throes of the Nathaniel Hawthorne type of hundred-word sentences, a chain of dependent clauses parading across the page nose-to-tail like a procession of pigs. Hemingway’s grandest achievement was to hack away a lot of that linguistic overgrowth, and as a result he became probably the most consequential writer in our history. Today, asking a writer to define Hemingway’s influence is like asking a fish to describe water.
No is Not Enough, by Naomi Klein
Ten years ago, at the end of a trip to Europe, I found a copy of Klein’s then-new title The Shock Doctrine in the English-language section of a bookstore in Madrid. I didn’t have anything else to read on the long flight home, so I bought it.
I read the book for eight straight hours. It was a brilliant, profound look at how governments and organizations exploit natural crises for their own ends. I was aghast at the Chicago School of Economics’ influence upon Latin American politics, especially in Chile. The stuff about the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina also put into context a lot of stuff happening during the W era.
This title, published last year, isn’t quite as good, but it’s not because of her lack of analysis, style, or passion—those are all still there. It’s just that this title is less shocking (ba-dum!) and less original. It’s a fairly predictable attack on the horrible actions of the current U.S. administration. Watching her take shots at the lizards in power felt too easy, maybe because they’ve already being well and deservedly ambushed by many other lesser intellects.
Klein is an unabashed leftist—she sits on the board of The Nation—which is too far out to la izquierda for my own tastes. Still, I found myself nodding in vigorous agreement as she identifies and discusses the two biggest threats to global civilization: income inequality and climate change. I’m still a fan, but I’d beg Klein to turn her enormous brain towards issues that are less obvious than the treasonous rat-bastards currently running the federal government. That crime family are going to be short-timers anyways; it’s Klein’s big-picture analysis of long-term trends that makes her so great.