It’s that time, again, to add yet another “best of” list to the mountainous mountain of “best of” lists.
New books I loved in 2011
The Pale King – You’ve heard all the buzz by now: it’s David Foster Wallace’s outstanding posthumous novel. There was big controversy over whether it was even fair or right to have allowed this to be published, considering that Wallace left no instructions as to how it should be treated, but he did organize his notes before dying, which at least indicates he knew they’d be culled by an editor and was okay with that. But more importantly, as I said in my NPR review of the book, the book doesn’t even feel so unfinished. The characters are fleshed out and engaging, the story gets off the ground. If you’ve only read Wallace’s nonfiction, this book, though difficult at times, is worth it. And it’s a good starter course (at 500+ pages, I wouldn’t dare call it an appetizer) for Infinite Jest, still his crowning fiction achievement and definitely a harder book than this one.
The Art of Fielding – Sometimes when a book gets so much praise, you want to be snarky and say “Overrated!” but Chad Harbach’s debut novel is every bit as good as everyone says. It’s not exactly an intellectually challenging book—in fact I’ve recommended it to many people I know that are not what you’d call “big readers,” and all of them loved this (perhaps that leaves it open to one snobby criticism from some, which would be that it’s something of a breeze to read, which, in the view of some, would perhaps lessen its serious weight)—but it truly tells a story that has it all, including college life, young love, sex, sports, academia and death. Plus a lot of Melville references! I reviewed it for The Rumpus.
The Marriage Plot – Like The Art of Fielding, this book was mostly a delight, which is not to say it didn’t have serious themes to it, but just that the pages keep turning and turning and the entire experience is a pleasure. I do, however, imagine this book being very difficult for serious fans of Wallace. I know it was for me. In interviews, Eugenides has refused to confirm that the character of Leonard is based on DFW, but it’s absurdly obvious. The tobacco-chewing, the bandana-wearing, calling his friends and talking incessantly about his troubles, the depression and the stints in McLean-like facilities… it’s Wallace. And it feels a bit manipulative and cruel for Eugenides to have exploited this man to the extent he did for a fictional character (yes, yes, everyone culls their real life acquaintances as bases for characters, but still, this is like a 1:1 ratio from real life to the page). But that’s just one part, a bittersweet aspect, of a terrific book that really nails its time period well and also doesn’t coddle its characters. Maddy can be a brat, Mitchell is too self-doubting to get what he wants and deserves, Leonard goes out with a clumsy sort of melodramatic exit that I don’t think we’re even meant to take 100% seriously, and in the end the conclusion for all three members of the love triangle seems fair, if not particularly wonderful.
It’s kind of lame to give those wildly-praised releases (all by white men, yikes, I know) as my top three titles of the year, but sometimes the books that are on every single Top 10 list are on them because they’re truly deserving. And these three are. Each one is brilliant in its own way, each one an achievement, and each of them I could not put down (which is saying a lot for the DFW title, considering it’s far denser than the other two). Where two of them vividly paint the undergraduate experience and transport you back to a college campus, the other does the same but for a different sort of communal grounds: the IRS training center. These are three works from three writers in the prime of their careers (well, one of them is just beginning his, but what a promising debut), and it’s all the more upsetting that one of them is no longer with us. Of course, though these three titles went by the fastest and stayed with me the longest, there were other books I enjoyed as well this year.
House of Holes – There’s no real way to describe this book without making it sound boring, only because, for a book so very dirty, it’s very straightforward: the plot is that people looking for sex get transported, through a portal, to a sort of sex camp. Within that, though, there’s very little plot. What makes the book so hilarious and unique is the spoken dialogue between two people (or three, or eight or fifty, in some cases) that are doing sexual things. They talk in such a direct, glib manner that it almost sounds like a parody of bad porno, the ‘oh baby, oh baby, oh yes, do me, do me, do not stop’ variety. Characters say things like “I’m going to fuck your tattoo free now. Uh. Uh. Fuck it away, uh.” (There’s also magic throughout the story; this particular character can remove your tattoos for you by fucking them off.) Then there are the more flowery, ridiculous exultations, like “More come, more come! Jerk it out! Ice my cake, dickboys! I want to feel like a breakfast pastry!” Needless to say, the book is a pure diversion, completely lacking any deeper meaning (regardless of what anyone might argue), existing solely for joy and hilarity, making it a must-read, totally raunchy inside joke.
The Deal from Hell – Somehow this book went generally unnoticed, or at least, was not in any of the “best of the year” roundups I saw. Perhaps places like the Times or any other major newspaper doesn’t want to lavish praise on a book that wages war on a peer newspaper. But that’s what The Deal from Hell does—like Scott Raab in The Whore of Akron, James O’Shea has an axe to grind with the Chicago Tribune and the L.A. Times, except that he does an even better job, or at least a more professional one, at laying out the facts of the reporting first and then allowing his own bias and resentment in. Come for the story of a wonderful paper’s ruin, stay for the insidery anecdotes, like one about Randy Michaels getting a blowjob on the top floor or Tribune Tower.
Steve Jobs – Everyone, of course, is talking about or has already read by now Walter Isaacson’s gargantuan biography (more like an autobiography that just happens to have written by someone other than its subject) of the late Apple genius Steve Jobs. Months after its release it remains the #1-selling overall book in the Amazon store. But the reason people are so enjoying it really isn’t because it’s particularly well-written (it’s not), but because the subject is simply so fascinating. He was a creative genius and a shrewd businessman, but also, the book makes clear, a raging asshole. It makes the book, which truly is presented as a “just the facts” chronology, almost riveting. And I do give Isaacson credit for placing the quotes he’s gathered in such a way as to often be truly deadpan and hilarious, such as here: “At one point his father found some dope in his son’s Fiat. ‘What’s this?’ he asked. Jobs coolly replied: ‘That’s marijuana.'” or here: “Raskin had one problem: Jobs regarded him as an insufferable theorist or, to use Jobs’s own more precise terminology, ‘a shithead who sucks.'”
Books I read (and loved) in 2011 that weren’t published in 2011
Nemesis – Philip Roth has truly embraced this late stage of putting out only slim, angry novellas (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling) and although I wonder if we’ll ever see one last big book from him, I’m on board with this trend. Not all of these have been winners (The Humbling was garbage), but Indignation is terrific and Nemesis almost takes the same plot devices (a young Jewish man as its protagonist, an upsetting personal twist, a fraught romance) but does it even better, and ends up being an even more entertaining book. This is saying a lot considering that Indignation was, at least for the first half, much lighter in content, whereas Nemesis is upsetting and serious from the beginning, dealing with a hard subject: the death of children from Polio. What’s clear is that Roth, who may be known for his adept portrayals of troubled old men (The Human Stain, American Pastoral, countless others), is equally good, if not better, at writing about young people (Letting Go, Indignation, Nemesis).
Union Atlantic – This year I read two novels that were supposedly both about the financial crisis (see my post on novel pairings): this one, by Adam Haslett, and The Privileges by Jonathan Dee. The two overlapped in topic, but only barely. The latter was the more praised by critics, and probably the more refined in writing style, and I liked it a lot. But it’s Union Atlantic that has stayed with me—its protagonist is by no means a good guy, but I’ve thought a lot about what happens to him and the decisions he makes, and I have an itch to reread the book.
Mr. Peanut – Adam Ross’s surprising whodunnit (it’s almost unfair to call it that, though, it diminishes what is a very serious book that asks serious questions about marriage and happiness) is written from the perspective of David Pepin, who is also writing a novel of his own as he tells his story (so be careful; pay attention). When I read this in May and loved it, I then devoured all the various commentary that existed online about the book, which is not without its controversies. Then I reviewed it here and issued my own analysis of the ending and what exactly happened. The author responded to my post. Give Mr. Peanut your time and then, as a lighter dessert, read this year’s Ladies and Gentlemen, Ross’s second book, a collection of very good, O. Henryesque short stories that I reviewed for The Rumpus.
The Instructions – I read this book in one feverish three-day trip to Orlando for a work assignment. That means I had it on the plane, in my hotel bed, at the table in the hotel where I ate breakfast alone, and I even held it in my hands above the water level one night while literally pacing back and forth in the shallow end of the pool, reading the book. It’s a long one (very, very long) but never feels like a slog, and the language and dialogue are hilarious and quirky. And now I’m looking forward to Levin’s short story collection, Hot Pink.
Tepper Isn’t Going Out – I was familiar with Calvin Trillin through his New Yorker articles but had never read fiction by him. This book is a slim little piece of dessert—I finished it in two days—and will feel especially biting and relevant to you if you’ve ever had a car in New York City. Trillin is an expert on the city tabloid culture, the political scene, and on the joys and miseries of driving up and down every block searching for a parking spot. You will laugh out loud.
The Children’s Hospital – When I was only about thirty pages into this, the first book I’ve read by Chris Adrian (though I loved his short story “The Warm Fuzzies” that ran in The New Yorker‘s 20 Under 40 series), I tweeted something like, “Chris Adrian is the most talented young writer out there today, no question.” I believe it. The premise of the book (the entire world has flooded again, killing everyone, except for the doctors and patients in one hospital, which is now floating along like an ark) is just so inventive, beautiful and quirky that I was blown away, but then it’s the way that it’s narrated that really impresses you (four different angels tell the story: the preserving, recording, accusing and destroying angel). His sentences are varied and funny. He has the ability to write something crushingly sad and, in the next sentence, make you laugh out loud. Much of this book is also tragic and funny at the same time. When one character, Dr. Snood, finds young Dr. Chandra standing in a window preparing to jump out to his death, and begins talking to him to try and talk him out of it, this is what Snood says after Chandra asks him why he shouldn’t jump: “‘I don’t like suicide.’ It was true, but it was the wrong thing to say.” Then Chandra jumps. It’s equally chilling when the preserving angel first overtly makes it clear that the rest of the world is gone. A doctor (no one yet knows what has happened) calls up her boyfriend, who does not work in the hospital, and after they talk for a moment she loses him suddenly. She thinks the connection simply went dead, but then a voice comes over the line and says matter-of-factly, “He is gone, my love. Gone forever, not to be seen again in this world. He is already drowned, but not you. You I will protect and preserve and love for your allotted time.” The writing is often even charming, in a deadpan way, and one sentence even reminded me of Tao Lin: “She sat down on the stairs, put her head in her hands, and thought of the boobs, a hundred boobs and a hundred hands reaching out, hesitating and uncertain, to touch them. Go away, she said to them, and the kaleidoscope vision fractured and fell in on itself.” It’s even funnier when the residents of the hospital decide they need to elect a president, which they dub “the universal friend,” and the people running put up campaign posters with great slogans, like Dr. Snood’s DON’T CHANGE HORSES IN THE MIDDLE OF THE OCEAN or Ishmael’s YOU KNOW ME. (They really don’t.) The novel is far from perfect—it could have lost about 200 pages by cutting out most of the sections about Jemma’s childhood. But it is an experience you will never forget. Its ending will leave you devastated.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – There probably is very little I could say about this book that hasn’t been said before (see James Wood’s great New Yorker piece on Mitchell) so I’ll just write that I have zero interest in historical fiction and therefore wouldn’t have tried this book, but I judged a book by its cover (the paperback of this is lovely) and picked it up, and I’m glad I did. It’s beautiful, moving, funny, smart. In the beginning, it’s confusing, and you worry, with all the accents and dialogue, that you’ll lose track of the characters, but soon it all naturally falls into place, as happens with the best narratives. When the story ends, you’ll be sad to leave its world, and to say goodbye to red-haired Jacob, his love, and the whole crazy cast.
The Tragedy of Arthur – The concept of this book is really clever and impressive, and as such the book has received all sorts of praise from the various literary tastemakers, but I found it to be two very different books in one. The concept is that a character, also named Arthur Phillips (the author’s name) has been given, by his dad, a supposedly undiscovered Shakespeare play. This book even contains the play, and though it’s at the back, the introduction suggests that you read the play first. I did, and the play is wonderful. It truly reads like a Shakespeare play, though more modern and a bit more casual, and for that, Phillips deserves huge credit. It really is incredible, and the play is entertaining and funny. There are even footnotes from a fictional Shakespeare scholar as well as Phillips the character, who points out to the reader, cynically, the little bits that he believes prove the play is a fake (he does not trust his father, who went to jail repeatedly for forgeries, and is now dead). But then you read the first 250 pages, which are meant to be a long introduction to the play, written by Phillips. This section—the vast majority of the book—is really kind of boring, whiny, and meandering. When I first began it, I was loving it. Phillips describes his upbringing and his spirited, irresponsible father (I loved this memory of the father: “not bookish, as Jews in his day were meant to be, but flamboyantly literary. Not self-hating, but self-creating. Not interested in himself as a Jew at all, but by no means interested in anonymity.”), and recounts various poor behavior and adventures that the elder Phillips enacted on his two children. But the story quickly becomes a whiny complaint about how Arthur falls in love with his lesbian sister Dana’s lover. Again, Phillips does have the capacity to be very funny in a bawdy, young dude sort of tone, like here, when Arthur is explaining how his sister Dana would talk him up to girls and make him sound like a great guy and brilliant writer: “She described my labors sitting on our fire escape going over my words again and again… exhausted and happy because I’d managed in those long hours to write a few lines that reached to the heart of what it felt like “to be a woman today,” she said to the unbelievable hottie with the rack that just would not quit.” But too much of it is tedious and dry. Just one example comes from when Arthur’s mother speak frankly to him after his father’s funeral (she has long since divorced him and remarried). Arthur reflects: “I didn’t know yet that her words were being banked, in some part of my cunning mind, converted to useful currency.” He means to show his guilt for taking her honest words and eventually exploiting them for use in his writing. But this is no longer an interesting avenue for fiction to take, the route of debating the ethical problems of mining one’s personal relationships for story fodder– we know every writer does it, and that it’s unavoidable, and the discussion of that practice is to me not a compelling one. Nor is the end of Arthur’s love triangle really very interesting, instead it sort of just feels like a stretch, and a boring one. Again, though, it may be worth reading if just to see how he does it, how he presents a very believable Shakespeare play and then presents a far-fetched story of its discovery. Also, the book is often useful in a sheerly factual, encyclopedic way, like when Phillips recounts just how many books or other works have taken Shakespeare lines as their titles: Pale Fire, Exit Ghost, Infinite Jest, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Sound and the Fury, Unnatural Acts, The Quick and the Dead, Against the Polack, To Be or Not to Be, Band of Brothers, Casual Slaughters.” That’s quite a list. And this was a book that clearly took a lot of scholarly work.
The Visible Man – Why does Chuck Klosterman continue to try writing fiction? It doesn’t work. At the outset of The Visible Man, through an email from the “author” of the account (a shitty psychiatrist) to her editor, we get the basic teaser for the book, and it’s a rather compelling setup: We learn that her patient, Y__ has “consumed people’s lives without their consent” and “became exclusively interested in the unseen reality of human behavior” and “did not think it was possible to study such behavior if the person knew they were being studied.” This is a pet topic of Klosterman’s—voyeurism and how people behave when no one is looking. It’s one he explored in one of the best two essays of Eating the Dinosaur. As the narrative progresses, Y__ continues to make smart, Gladwellian little points that are both interesting and seem very true (like this one: “I’ll never understand why people [sign up for therapy and then claim to hate talking about themselves]. Do they feel some kind of social pressure to prove they’re not self-absorbed, even though the basis of this entire process is a critical examination of one’s own self-absorption?”) but these little mini-screeds seem out of place in what’s meant to be a work of fiction. In other words, is Klosterman trying to tell a compelling story using created characters, or does he want his protagonist to be a mouthpiece through which to argue Chuck Klosterman’s own opinions on various life lessons? He hasn’t fully decided, which is why the entire “novel” feels like half story, half opinion piece, much like Downtown Owl did, though the main problem with that book (which was his first attempt at a novel) was the constant pop-culture references, a mistake that this book suffers from too, but not quite as much. When Y__ says, “You enter therapy in order to confront four-word sentences: Why am I here? Where am I going?” he is blatantly lifting the questions from The Sopranos—a series that Klosterman himself adores and references by name twice in this book. In a famous episode from the first half of the final season, Tony, in a coma, springs awake for a moment and stares at Carmela with vacant eyes, still dreaming, and asks, feverishly, “Who am I? Where am I going?” He repeats the same two questions again. Whether Klosterman is consciously paying tribute or unaware of the influence, there’s just no way that these two questions didn’t come into his imagination via The Sopranos. Only a handful of pages later, the same pop-culture reference problem occurs when Y__, recalling his first voyeuristic experience peeping in on a classmate, tells the psychiatrist: “When his window was ajar, I could sit in my tree and faintly hear the music he would mimic: Rush. He listened to Rush.” [Here, in the margins, I literally wrote “O god, here we go…” and I was right. Further down the page, it gets worse]… “I always wanted to ask him about it. I wanted to just casually walk up and say, ‘Hey, Swanson. So, what do you think of Canadian power trios? Any opinion? Do they inspire your every being? Any plans to do an oral book report on Anthem?‘” This is awful writing, because there’s a person speaking here, busting out arcane music references that don’t belong, and that person is not the character. It’s Chuck Klosterman. Later, again, he recalls one guy whose house contained a lot of artwork of “vaguely sexualized women” (the premise is that the character has a special bodysuit that, when worn, makes him basically invisible and allows him to enter people’s homes). He says, “Did you ever listen to Duran Duran? These paintings were sort of like the cover of the Duran Duran album Rio.” A comparison like this is so useless to most readers as to be almost momentum-killing for the narrative. The vast majority of readers cannot instantly visualize that album cover even if they do like the band, so what should we do, Google the image? It’s as though we’re meant to believe that every one of Chuck Klosterman’s characters have the same studied, elite taste in music as the author himself. It just doesn’t make sense. Klosterman even asked himself in Killing Yourself to Live, a nonfiction memoir, “Has it really come to this? Have I become so reliant on popular culture that it’s the only way I can understand anything? If wolves killed my mother, would I try to eulogize her with lyrics off Bloodon the Tracks?” It seems the answer is yes. Occasionally, Klosterman smartens up and instead of these hyper-specific references, allows the character to make vaguer recollections. These are far more plausible and entertaining. For example, when Y__ tries to describe a group of women watching Lost and arguing over the various plot twists (a very funny inside joke to those who’ve seen the show, and one he pulls off better by not actually naming the show), he says, “At 9:20 they turn on the television. They’ve digitally recorded that popular program about the good-looking airline passengers who accidentally travel through time.” Much better. Another damaging issue in the book, though, is that the psychiatrist’s notes grow increasingly obnoxious (perhaps CK would say that’s intentional) as she describes the difficult process of dealing with this patient. Eventually, they become so facile as to make us think the problem is with Klosterman’s writing. “My confidence is shaken,” she writes. Then: “I’m losing my grip on this process.” At this point, 65 pages in, we’ve seen that happen. We do not need or want to hear her spell out the obvious. It would be like a character having a terrifying near-death experience and then, a few pages after the exciting scene, reflecting, “That experience was very frightening for me.” And yet, on page 107 (of a slim 224 pages), Y__ recounts sitting in the home of a woman who had a compulsive, horrifying sort of routine in which she’d smoke a ton of weed, gorge on food, then work out like crazy as an act of self-punishment. The cycle would then repeat. There’s a long description of her lifestyle next to which, in the margins, I wrote, “Finally. The entire book should have begun with this section– more exciting, medias res, etc. Could have lost the entire first 90 pages or so.” Of course, none of this is to say that Klosterman’s two worst indulgences—the mini-rants and the music references—can’t be sometimes entertaining. They sure can. For example, when Y__ gives his theory about how people behave when staying alone in hotel rooms (“People aren’t natural when they stay in hotels… The ability to just drop towels on the floor changes the way people view themselves… Men inevitably masturbate”), it strikes you as completely true and funny at the same time—the best type of opinion-issuing. And a few pages later, Y__ makes a pop culture reference that literally had me laughing out loud, perhaps, admittedly, because I “got” this one: “I watch There Will Be Blood in my bedroom. Not the whole movie. Just the middle part. The part where the oilman is talking to his fake brother by the fire and says, ‘I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed.’ I watch that scene over and over and over again… It feels so good to watch.” But, overall, just too much of the same, too much of the style and content that makes Klosterman’s nonfiction essays so delightful, but, sadly, also makes it a better bet for him to stick to that type of work, and leave fiction alone.
Swamplandia! – This is a very impressive debut novel, especially from someone so young, but it’s more impressive for its inventiveness and writing flair than the actual reading experience it offers.
The hype around this book became very loud (I was especially surprised to see it on the Times list of the 10 best books of the year). People rave about Karen Russell constantly, but I found Swamplandia! to have a very promising premise and then a disappointing execution. I really enjoyed the first half of the novel, which sets up the family, their alligator shows, the sad collapse of the Bigtree business, and then quickly breaks into the dual narratives of Ava off on her own and Kiwi infiltrating the competition (his sections were the comic relief). It reminded me, again and again, of Geek Love, a book I adored.
But then, once Ava sets out with the Bird Man, the book became really upsetting and kind of hard to handle. Now, I don’t quite know how to eloquently describe what I mean, but I can only say that many scary or disturbing books are wonderful; I know that. Take A Clockwork Orange or most Stephen King books. But this was different. It became really menacing, and not in an enjoyable way. As the Bird Man brings Ava further and further down the river, [spoiler alert] you keep wondering whether this book is going to turn out to be fantasy or not, and then, when you finally find out what you suspected all along, it’s really horrifying, and in addition, the entire journey starts to seem implausible: hard to really believe that Ava, who’s such a smart young girl, would go with him; hard to believe that officer they run into wouldn’t sense that something is fishy; and hard to believe Ava would get rescued and not die out there alone in the woods. And in the end, I closed the book feeling shaken and not too wowed. That being said, one reason Russell is receiving so much interest and praise is because her language is just terrific, and in terms of its diction and the craft of its sentences, Swamplandia! is a real achievement.
[Interlude: It just occurs to me that the books mentioned in this blog post are nearly 100% by male authors, which probably looks awful. In addition to Swamplandia I read just three other books by women this year: A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore, Red Hook Road by Ayelet Waldman and Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. I liked each of them but none was among my favorites. Anyway, four is too few—it wasn’t by design, but I clearly need to read more fiction by women.]
Open City – I’m not sure why everyone was so taken with this book. I think that a wonderful review by James Wood really helped, but for me, it was simply boring. At first the plot (there really isn’t any; it’s just the protagonist, Julius, wandering around New York talking about ideas and historical events) seems charming, but soon enough I was miserable. It’s saying a lot that, even though it’s only 250 pages (short for most novels) I found the book to be a slog and spent a few weeks finishing it. Perhaps it all went over my head, but I can’t help but feel that this was a slight, unremarkable, stream-of-consciousness novel masquerading as something deep and brilliant. I also felt it was one of those books in which, when the characters speak (in the rare event that they do speak; this book has very little dialogue), they don’t talk in a plausible, realistic way but instead a flowery, overwritten manner. I’ve seen a lot of authors do this, and I think they often know they’re doing it but choose to do so anyway because, well, it’s prettier. It’s not believable. For example, when discussing his sadness over the death of a professor friend, Julius says “I had hoped for grace, not for immortality” and then, “I had hoped for a graceful, strong exit for this professor of mine.” The second sentence seems like something that a human being would indeed say aloud; the first does not. Julius himself is also hard to like. He meanders around the city with no direction, telling long-winded stories about his encounters with random characters. And yet, in his sporadic way, he’ll then meet one who is just like the others (in other words, a random person that we fully expect him to get into a long conversation with and befriend), but instead, he says with surprising coldness (about a chatty man working in the post office): “I made a mental note to avoid that particular post office in the future.” It doesn’t make sense, the inconsistency. All that being said, the author, Teju Cole, is really interesting to follow on Twitter. He’s smart and insightful, and most of his tweets are what he calls fait divers (small fates) and they are truly special. So I look forward to his next book.
Books I’m most looking forward to reading in 2012:
The Angel Esmerelda – I have had a challenging history with DeLillo. In high school, at the suggestion of no one, I picked up Underworld and enjoyed the entire thing, though of course, like everyone, I found the excitement dies down pretty drastically after the opening section (Pafko at the Wall). Then my girlfriend and I read White Noise together and we both couldn’t stand it. We felt it was exhausting, boring, beating us over the head with its consumerism message. Not at all subtle by any means, but neither was it smart in its maximalism like Wallace’s writing can be. However, I’ve read a couple of these stories already and have heard great things about the collection. It’s exciting to me (to everyone, clearly) that it’s DeLillo’s first short story collection.
The Leftovers – My DeLillo experience mirrors my history with Perrotta—some duds, some masterpieces (though with DeLillo, the book I hated is often cited as his very best work, whereas Perrotta’s Abstinence Teacher no one seemed to like). I first read Little Children and found it gripping. I admired Perrotta’s pitch-perfect dialogue between bored adults (see also: The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas) and his depiction of young motherhood and its occasional malaise. Then I went back and read Joe College, which I also loved even though it was very clearly a less mature work. Fun, light, easy to whip through. That led me to highly anticipate his new book, The Abstinence Teacher, which I read with a friend, and both of us were floored by just how inconsistent it was. The book started out wonderfully, oscillating between the lives of two characters whose lives approach each other but never join. Then, at the very end, the two characters finally do meet in a very strange, serious, dramatic moment—and that’s it, the book ends. And it isn’t a clever, winking sort of Sideways thing (the movie) where “you choose your own ending” but instead one that I promise you feels abrupt, empty, almost like it’s missing another hundred pages. I sort of swore off Perrotta but now his new one, about The Rapture, has had some nice press, and I really liked the first few pages, which I read on Kindle sample.
The Cat’s Table – Wait a minute, I’m starting to see a pattern here. Not sure if this just shows that it’s rare to love every book that one author has written, or if it says something about me as a reader, but as with DeLillo and Perrotta, I have read two Ondaatje books and loved one, hated the other. My first entry to him was Divisadero, which I found to be absolutely enthralling, elusive, and lush with memory and childhood. I read it with a book club. After that, I felt I had to go back and read The English Patient, his most famous work. But I disliked its abstract, almost smug bullshit and tedious, slow buildup. I’m hearing great things, though, about his new book, and have read that it’s a bit of a departure for him. Sounds nice.
Blue Nights – I read Didion’s first memoir of loss, The Year of Wishful Thinking, and, like every single other person in the world, found it stunning, moving, devastating. I need to work up the courage before I can pick this slim little heartbreaker up, but I know it’ll be equally terrific.
Stoner – Keep hearing from anyone and everyone how surprisingly good this book is, which was written back in 1965 but was reissued in 2006 by Barnes & Noble Classics. It’s about an English teacher and sure looks like one of those books that could surprise me.