READING LIST 2017
THE CHANGELING, by Victor Lavalle
I fell hard and fast for this book from its first few eerie chapters. It never quite wraps up the enticing plot threads of that perfect beginning, but it delivers on the promise of marrying bone-deep fairy tale horror with a gritty, realistic portrait of contemporary New York.
ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE, by Gail Honeyman
A light, fun story of child abuse, alcoholism and trauma-induced amnesia. Awesome Scottish-isms are a bonus.
AFTER THE DANCE, by Jan Gaye and David Ritz
I devoured this autobiographical story of the tortured romance between Marvin and Jan Gaye in just a few days, cursing myself and threatening to abandon it all the while. Call me a sucker for a disaster memoir, well-written or not.
4 3 2 1, by Paul Auster
There's a reason this is the only November entry. The question I kept asking myself as I read this 800+ page slog was why? What is the reason for this beautifully-written, wise, entertaining and extremely detailed delve into the four different versions of a New York kid's life? I'm not sure this book ever amounts to more than an intricate stylistic exercise, but with a heavy sigh I will recommend it anyway, being a more steadfast fan of the reading journey than the reading destination. Just clear your damn month if you're going to tackle this one.
HISTORY OF WOLVES, by Emily Fridlund
This is a beautiful, miserable book. It loses focus toward the end, and the point it wants to make about action and responsibility was never crystal-clear to me, but the tightness of its structure as it spirals in on its central tragedy is gorgeous and magnetic. There were many times I wasn't sure I could take any more of its barely-contained misery, but I kept reading anyway because the language was beautiful and the suspense was gripping. Also, the awkward, lonely teenager at the heart of this book is exactly the kind of subversive, hold-nothing-back protagonist I find irresistible.
AMERICAN STATIC, by Tom Pitts
How does this guy make it look so easy? I read Tom Pitts' books not only for the sheer pleasure and excitement, but also for pointers on how to write lean, clear, lightning-fast prose. It is so difficult to write crime fiction without seeming like you're trying too hard to sound tough or street, or noir, whatever the hell that adjective means nowadays. A word out of place, an adjective too many, and the whole house of cards comes crashing down... but not in this case. Pitts' writing keeps up a consistently smooth, honest tone that never dips into parody or excess, and the result is a book that makes you forget you are reading.
AMERICANAH, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I absolutely loved this book. I didn't want it to end. What I loved most about it was how the main character, awash in competing ideologies, remains an individual throughout. It's the same thing I loved about Erica Jong's FEAR OF FLYING - the courage of their protagonists to say fuck you not only the overtly oppressive ideologies, but to the ones that are supposedly liberating as soon as they, too, become oppressive.
LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, by George Saunders
As with all George Saunders' work, I laughed, and then hated myself for laughing. This is a really disturbing and hilarious book about death, grief, and the national tragedy of the Civil War. So fun!
DRESS YOUR FAMILY IN CORDUROY AND DENIM; WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES; LET'S EXPLORE DIABETES WITH OWLS, by David Sedaris
I devoured all three of these during a recent lake house vacation, during which I kept shooing away my kids so I could read these (vacation is vacation, goddamn it.) I skipped the clever-clever funny fiction in OWLS; don't care. I care about the magical transfiguration of life into art that happens in Sedaris' nonfiction. I'd bet my right arm the incidents in these books were not nearly as interesting, hilarious or moving when they were happening in real life (although with some of them, that's hard to imagine). But here they are now, better reading than some of the best fiction, for being shoved through the spaghetti-maker of the writerly imagination. Mmm, tasty.
RIDING THE RAP, by Elmore Leonard
Gonna work my way through the Raylan Givens novels so I can someday make it through a whole episode of Justified without falling asleep on the couch. I liked this one even better than PRONTO because it has my favorite kind of character ever - the fortune teller who is sort of genuine but also sort of a grifter.
PRONTO, by Elmore Leonard
Read this, will you:
"...When she didn't nod but kept staring at him he said "Will you do that?"
Harry came to life. He said, "We'll be okay."
Joyce looked away for a moment to start the car. Now she was looking at Raylan again and it gave him a funny feeling.
Harry said, "See you around."
Joyce said, "Take care of yourself."
He said, "Don't worry," and smiled.
She didn't, or even try to.
Just incredible, the tension he builds with so few words, so little said. Not a word wasted, or out of place. Who the hell else can do that but Elmore Leonard?
LEGWORK, by Katy Munger
A funny, edgy female sleuth story - like a Southern Janet Evanovich. Great sense of place. I knew almost nothing about North Carolina, and now I know something.
THE MOTHERS, by Brit Bennett
A crisply written exploration of love, grief and perceptions of motherhood. Extra points for creepy use of first-person plural POV. Terrific world-building.
FEAR OF FLYING, by Erica Jong
I can't believe how well this book holds up. If it weren't for all the douching, you'd think these sexual adventures and questioning of gender dogma (both patriarchal and feminist) were going on today instead of forty-odd years ago. The woman in this book says whatever the fuck she wants to, no matter whom it pisses off. What an interesting, quick, multi-faceted intelligence.
INTERPRETER OF MALADIES, by Jumpa Lahiri
I'm working my way through all the books I'm supposed to have read as a former English major, and haven't yet. Tremendous writing, and I always enjoy a book with a strong immigrant perspective, but I didn't make it through the whole thing. This may sound like a silly reason, but all the stories I read seemed equally downcast, and to me it's more interesting to explore human misery from a place of hope and solution, no matter how expertly the misery is portrayed. It's possible I'm just getting old. I may give these stories another try after I eat my creamed corn and take a mid-afternoon nap in my wicker armchair. (Postsript, November 2017: Nope. Tried again, gave up again. No thank you, misery porn.)
STAY AWAKE, by Dan Chaon
I started to have the same problem with this as INTERPRETER OF MALADIES (above), though here the problem isn't that the stories always end on a low note, it's that they stay on the same low note for most of the story. The writing is killer, and I love Chaon's ability to nail it with a compact, lightning-fast observation (“there is a kind of keep-on-truckin’, West Coast vibe at work here”) but the stories sometimes seem unsure of their destination. Depressing is okay, and artfully depressing is even better, but there still needs to be a narrative arc. “St. Dismas,” (great name) about halfway through the collection, was the first one that I felt really had one. So heartbreaking. “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow” is another good one. Maybe by then either he was on to something, or I was. “Slowly We Open Our Eyes” punched me in the gut with its narrative precision. This story couldn't be filmed because it depends so heavily on the placement and sequence of its words. Beautiful, precise, immediate prose throughout, which is why I kept reading, but I would be more interested in reading another one of his novels. I enjoyed YOU REMIND ME OF ME and remember no problems with a missing or incomplete story arc. Maybe he just needs a bit more space to get going. I felt like some of the stories in STAY AWAKE would have been stronger if he'd just stayed with them longer and let them figure themselves out. Anyway, creepy good stuff. I love writing that constantly makes you ask: is this really happening? (See also: Kelly Link)
THE FIREMAN, by Joe Hill
I wanted to like this more than I did. That's what you get, Joe Hill, for being awesome. Great story, great prose, but some of it just felt a little on the nose, which is shocking, coming from the author of the lovely, brainy HORNS and the heart-stopping TWENTIETH CENTURY GHOSTS. Joe Hill's writing usually has all the compactness and momentum of his dad (whose writing I also love), but with an added layer of sophistication, all of which is a long-winded way of saying he's a fucking great writer, and this book didn’t seem as good as his others. It's a big damn book, though, and at some point things have to be screwed and nailed and welded together in order to work, so until I figure out for myself how to do that and also make it "upmarket," I'm going to shut my yap. THE FIREMAN entertained me, but it didn’t entertain AND surprise me. If you've never read Joe Hill, start with TWENTIETH CENTURY GHOSTS. That collection of short stories made me tear up more than once, and I am generally acknowledged to have a heart of coal.
DJIBOUTI, by Elmore Leonard
I can’t believe I finally found a book by my hero Elmore Leonard that didn’t pass the first chapter test. Too much exposition masquerading as dialogue, or, as one reviewer put it, Leonard disregarded his own advice and left in the part that readers tend to skip.
NORSE MYTHOLOGY, by Neil Gaiman.
Dear Mr. Neil Gaiman: Please rewrite my life to make it simpler, more profound, and more entertaining for me to experience. Also more accessible to children.
DEER MICHIGAN, by Jack C. Buck
Read my review of this flash fiction collection on The Collagist website here. See what I did there?
MOONGLOW, by Michael Chabon
Every time I read a Michael Chabon book I think this is the one, the masterwork, the one that will put together everything he thinks about. And then I read another one and think the same thing, usually because it presents the same ideas but shuffled around so you see them from a different angle. Good story. A little meandering, typical of a memoir maybe, even a fake one. Probably a lot of people are trying to "interpret" this book when it's clear Chabon just wanted to tell a story and told it. The story is everything. Themes and significances creep in later, and are up to the reader to worry about. Also, it’s nice to read a book where one of the themes is that hey, at some point you just need to get over shit. This is a pretty welcoming book overall, low-key and not too demanding. Not as tightly plotted and crystal-clear in its trajectory as THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY but still entertaining throughout. Chabon has won a spot the shelf of authors I'll always read, no matter their choice of subject matter. Except maybe baseball. You have to draw the line somewhere.
THE UNSEEN WORLD, by Liz Moore
What a strange, lovely, heartbreaking book. I always wonder how writers can come up with worlds that are so peculiar, yet so fully realized. It feels, in this book, that you can almost reach in and touch the wallpaper, run your hands along the kitchen table, and yet much of this odd story is, of course, completely fabricated. Only a truly talented writer can make the make-believe seem more real than the real.
THE BONE CLOCKS, by David Mitchell
I think I screwed this book up for myself by reading its sorta sequel SLADE HOUSE first, but it's a mistake I would recommend. SLADE HOUSE is a short, lean little puzzle box of a book (more on that here) that takes the dark fantasy element of THE BONE CLOCKS and distills it to its essence. THE BONE CLOCKS adds a lot of spiritual meandering on the subject of mortality, and seems a bit flabby by comparison. Still, reading anything by David Mitchell is enjoyable, and if I had read these books in the right order I probably wouldn't have noticed anything amiss.
THE NIX, by Nathan Hill
This book was so much fun and so well-written I had the urge to start it again as soon as I was done.
Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch.
I didn't make it through this one, but I hear the ending is a real doozy, so can someone please just tell me how it ends?
CRUEL TIDE, by Ruth Sutton
Okay, I'm cheating - I might have actually finished this one late last December, I don't know. One of my fellow Fahrenheit authors, and a real pro - you can see the difference between someone writing her first book and someone writing her fifth. Strong sense of place- northern England, the Lake District. This always helps a story accomplish the trick of making a reader forget it's just a story, if it takes place somewhere you can see and feel. Beautiful county, and the author portrays it with affection. Strong writing that kept me moving and interested. My biggest complaint is that the two main characters, who are clearly being groomed to get together, have little chemistry. It's a pretty common device to have the romantic leads dislike each other at the beginning, but in this case I can't blame them. I can tell this is going to be a multi-book romance, but at least I'm interested enough to go on to the second book.