Smith Henderson – Fourth of July Creek: Fourth of July Creek is his debut novel, and he has set quite a bar for himself. If I didn’t feel bad enough about my utter lack of accomplishment at age 28, Henderson finished this mammoth and brilliant work (shortlisted for the PEN award) while also holding down a full time job as a copywriter for an advertising agency.
I choose the following passage because it is indicative of Henderson’s style and also concerns the central, if not always present, character – Jeremiah Pearl. He is introduced as a dangerous character, a “Tribulation-ready, Race War-ready” backwoods anarchist that threatens to kill the narrator for trying to help his malnourished son, Benjamin. The more you learn about Jeremiah the more you want to know, and the discoveries come in bursts, as the narrator, Pete tries to keep his own life from careening off a bridge embankment.
“There was a time with his wife on this river or a river just like it, it can’t be this river, but in his memory it is this one. A time on a wash just like this where he lay shirtless with her shivering in the August night, jeans pasted dark and wet to his knocking legs, his torso white to glowing in the moonlight. Her hair tendriled and framed about her face like an outlandish black tattoo. Her wet dress like a sleeve of molting skin, which of a sort it had been that whole night in their dancing. Her heart in its red and white cage knocking just inches from his own, like two young prisoners tapping out simpleton Morse I am here I am here I am here. Here I am for your pleasure for you forever. On a river like this where he impregnated her. A river promise too, he said I love you I love you. Seventeen years old. A pleasure so total that even then he knew he had mortgaged years to her and he did not care.”
The professional reviewers said it best: “a shattering and iconic American novel.”
Raymond Carver – Where I’m Calling From
The master. This collection will make the list every year, since I continue to return to it. Naked prose like Hemingway, but with none of the turn-off that surrounds Ernest’s celebrity. He was a member of the working poor, often the subject of his writing, and died of lung cancer at the age of 50. He drank and smoked hard, but that is not what drives the accolades. Read his obituary in the NY Times.
For me, his greatness lies in my inability to pinpoint why I love his stories so much. I normally read with a pen, and mark up passages to return to later. I can normally point to adept character description, a flourish of poetry around landscape, or a dialogue that begs to be read aloud. But with Carver, the pages lie unmarked. The story as a whole is measured and beautiful, even if I am often left wondering “what the fuck was that about?”
Personal favorites and where they show up in popular culture
- Why don’t you dance? – Inspiration for the short film “Everything must go” starring Will Ferrell
- What we talk about when we talk about love – The focus of Michael Keaton’s play in “Birdman”
- Bicycles, Muscles and Cigarettes
Saga – Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples
Fiona Staples is one of the best comic book artists alive. I pray to god they never make this into a movie or TV show.
Saga is a science fiction fantasy, set in a galaxy that’s as full of magic and monsters as it is spaceships and lasers. There’s a war between the planet Landfall, whose inhabitants have wings on their backs, and its moon Wreath, whose people all have horns on their heads — and this war has encompassed the entire universe.
Full disclosure: this is adult science fiction and is not for the faint of heart. It’s also completely insane. There is a tree-spaceship with no control panels (it goes where it wants, although you can ask nicely). A babysitter who is the ghost of a 14-year-old girl, missing her lower half after she died stepping on a landmine. Gratuitous sex scenes between robots with televisions for heads. There are seahorse people, magic spells that take secrets to work, giant triclops with massive exposed testicles, a flaming gorilla that says “Boo!”, swords that cut through space-time, and tiny anthropomorphic baby seals in overalls.
This is an ongoing series. Tradeback installments 1 through 5 have been published. The art is incredible, the story is truly original. Brian K Vaughn did Y the Last Man and Fiona Staples, well, just google her and look at her body of work.
Michael Chabon – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: Chabon’s prose is, no doubt, award-worthy. I am particularly fond of his character introductions; the way, with one tight paragraph you get a complete sense of a person. (See pages 324, 237 for two wonderful descriptions of Rosa Saks).
Yet I found it difficult to empathize deeply with many of the characters, especially Joe and Sammy. The aesthetics of the author’s sentences distract from, and sometimes completely overcome, a lack of character progression. With less emotional skin-in-the-game, the book relies on stand-alone chapters and passages that resonate long after one loses interest in the over-arching plot. Sammy’s relationship with a wayward father, the rare moments of tutelage from a misanthropic editor, George Deasey – these chapters command attention, partly because of the lull that surrounds them. I wanted to see more of these characters, the Molecule, Deasey and to a lesser extent, Rosa Saks.
There are enough plot twists to keep a reader involved throughout the 600 some-odd pages, and the beauty of Chabon’s sentences will help get you through. (I am also a comic book fan, so the novel was of academic interest to me.) But I would hesitate to re-read this one, nor do I plan on picking up another Chabon novel for a while.
Nick Hornby – High Fidelity
Yes, I know, I could have just watched the movie. It features a great list of leading ladies (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lisa Bonet, Joan Cusak, etc) and it often sounds like John Cusack is narrating through Hornby word-for-word. But Cusack’s character doesn’t allow for any sympathy on the viewer’s part. He is just a whiny, self-loathing, selfish prick who is “too clever to be this unsuccessful.”
Yet, in the book there are deeply funny passages, where Rob reflects on his own depression with stark clarity.
“I lost the plot for a while then. And I lost the subplot, the script, the soundtrack, the intermission, my popcorn, the credits, and the exit sign.”
“I’ve been thinking with my guts since I was fourteen years old, and frankly speaking, between you and me, I have come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains.”
Kazuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go: The phrase “born-to-die” has never been uttered more creatively than in Kazuo Ishiguro’s sixth novel.
Ishiguro doesn’t typically write sci-fi thrillers so it is neat to see him upend the conventions of a genre. You are not glued to the page and there is no late-story plot-twist as salve. What you get is an eerie concept that plays out slowly and heartbreakingly, as children try to change their fates.
To quote Sarah Kerr: The novel feels a bit too distant to move us to outright heartbreak, it delivers images of odd beauty and a mounting existential distress that hangs around long after we read it.
I tried to read two very different perspectives on faith in succession. One was written by an outspoken atheist and former professor of mine, Daniel Dennett. The other was written by an American poet and professor of divinity at Yale, Christian Wiman.
We often struggle with communicating a faith, a belief system, or the absence of one. I figured it might be good to pit a believer against an atheist, when the ideas of each are fresh in my mind. What I found was that these books don’t speak to one another, not even remotely.
Christian Wiman is a poet, a fantastic one at that, and his prose read like modern religious text. It should be read aloud, in the company of others, and needs to be read over, because the language is complex and beautiful. It is not a logic-based argument for or against religion, but rather a personal affirmation of faith in the face of a rare and deadly cancer that he miraculously recovered from.
Daniel Dennett lays out an extensive critique of religion, often steeped in Darwinian evolutionary theory and the sociological purpose that worship serves. If you are interested in the topic, it is worth a read. Far less aggressive than Richard Dawkins and more enjoyable.
An aside: the Christian Wiman book was suggested to me by a fascinating woman I met at a laundromat. She was a Franciscan nun that left the convent in her mid-forties because she fell in love. She was a pleasure to talk to, and the title popped into my head months later.
Nate Silver- The Signal and the Noise
Forecasting future outcomes is required in almost every human activity: from leaving the apartment with an umbrella to folding in a game of “Texas Hold-em.” In The Signal and the Noise, author Nate Silver uses areas of relative expertise (e.g. Poker and Baseball), as well as less familiar topics (e.g. Earthquake forecasting, Virus outbreaks), to highlight common biases that tend to skew the accuracy of predictions. Silver strolls through each chapter-topic in an accessible manner, punctuating his text with compelling charts of power-law distributions and Pareto efficiencies, to create a piece that is both entertaining and informative.
While the book’s subject matter is diverse, the author’s theoretical approach to forecasting is more uniform. Silver advocates for the broader use of Bayesian principles. Put simply, such a framework would allow us to update our beliefs about the world based on what we observe. Regularly updating prior probability estimates with subsequent observations allows us, in the words of Thomas Bayes, “to learn about [the universe] through approximation, getting closer and closer to the truth as we gather more evidence.”
Never venturing too far into the esoteric, “The Signal” is at its best when analyzing real-world phenomena through the lens of an arm-chair statistician, imploring us to apply more rigor when evaluating predictions in fields where noise is often mistaken for a signal. The chapters are fairly modular, so one has the ability to pick and choose topics without reading prior chapters for context. I was most impressed by the chapter that focuses on Earthquakes forecasting, as well as the chapter focusing on poker.
Tom Robbins- Wild Ducks Flying Backwards: His novels often feature wacky characters, a meandering narrative loaded with tangents and a mood colored by Robbin’s hippie-era sexual philosophy. They can be a bit too much (There is a permanent place in my heart for Jitterbug Perfume).
This collection of prose contains previously published travel articles, critiques, musings, tributes and poems. He was often featured in Playboy, go figure.
Personal favorite: Til Lunch Do Us Part – it is seven pages on what his last meal would be and why. Spoiler alert – it’s a tomato and mayo sandwich on white bread.
Ernest Hemingway – Men Without Women: He can’t write about love, but goddammit can he write about travel and roughing it. This is a slim volume you can take with you on safari, backpacking through the Himalayas, or camping out in your own backyard. Not his best even, in the short-form space (I love “The End of Something”), but there are some wonderful stories in here nonetheless.
Personal favorite: The Undefeated
Andres Dubus III – Townie
Meditation: The act of thinking about something very carefully and deeply for a long time.
Reviews of “Townie” constantly return to this word, and they have due cause. A majority of the book concerns itself with scenes of violence. Yet the repetition is not completely senseless. I get the sense that Dubus wants you to roll your eyes, to be exasperated by the seeming endlessness of it all. Granted, these acts of machismo were somewhat self-serving, even if he repents for them in retrospect.
While the book is intended to serve as a caution against the cyclical nature of violence, would we take heed, would we respect Andres Dubus III if he did not speak from experience? His toughness, his thirst for violence actually qualifies him to the reader, and we listen because he has hurt people before and knows what it’s like.
The biggest takeaway for me was this idea of membranes. How you have to move through two membranes when you punch someone in the face. The one inside yourself and the one around the face of another, as if everyone’s body is surrounded by an invisible membrane you to have to puncture to get to them. The author notes that this is different from sex, where if you both want it, the membranes fall away, but with violence you had to break that membrane yourself and once you learned how to do that it was easier to keep doing it.