just an occasionally updated list that goes to 11
Larry McMurtry, ROADS: I should probably read more McMurtry, who has — certainly in this amazingly breezy non-fiction work about driving on interstates and kvetching about writers — a very Western voice that is as essential as, say, Cormac McCarthy’s, but is warm and generous and I’d say wiser (if not smarter). An enjoyable but slight book. Very much looking forward to the upcoming McMurtry biography from my former advisor, Tracy Daugherty.
Cormac McCarthy, THE PASSENGER: Oh, hey, just mentioned this guy. This novel, McCarthy’s first in years and years, is utterly amazing in parts–some of the most gleaming and saddening prose I’ve ever read. Also the IRS is the villain, it romanticizes a world without institututions, it lazily mythologies its hero, and two characters hang out across time and space with the same flipper-handed hallucination named The Thalidomide Kid, who might be from the real alien planet that controls existence (that last bit is merely hinted at, to be clear). (Aside: I also re-read All the Pretty Horses, so that’s one of my eleven here, though I plan to discuss it in a different venue.)
Sarah Shun Lien-Bynum, LIKES: Are enough people reading Sarah Shun-lien Bynum? This collection of stories–a finalist for all the great short fiction awards, deservedly so–interweaves contemporary life with fairy tales in ways that are, yes, a bit familiar at this point…but are full of knowing and revealing and considering the intimacies of relationships above all. These are strange and sometimes alarming and very often quietly funny stories.
A.B. Yehoshua, THE LIBERATED BRIDE: Two-thirds into this novel, I thought it was one of the best books I’ve ever read — and while the final third feels a little too thematic and repetitive, that can happen with an almost 600-page book. This is a tremendous, tremendous novel all the same. Set in Israel, focusing on an Israeli professor of Near Eastern Studies and his relationships with his wife, a judge (she’s an amazing character, when they get into a fight midway through the novel, it’s beautifully realized and hard and painful), a Palestinian graduate student struggling with depression, her family and their constant loving/annoying/amusing advocacy that he help her, his aging mentor, his younger more progressive faculty … and at the heart of it, his obession over the untold reasons why his former daughter-in-law divorced his son. This book achieves in its best passages moments that fully immersive, haunting, sad, and stirring. Can’t recommend (most of) it more.
Farah Ali, PEOPLE WANT TO LIVE: This is a fantastic collection of contemporary stories by a great Pakistani author; these stories look sadly at relationships between family and friends, considering background and situatedness and how the pressures of life come to bear on how we all get along with each other. Which is what writing can and should do. (Plus I was lucky to be on a recent panel with Farah and she is tremendously kind and friendly. Can’t wait for her novel.)
Jenny Offill, WEATHER: A book about being anxious about the state of the world that’s generally described as being both terrifying and hilarious … two tones that clash and, for me, make this more a light-feeling novel than anything else.
Graham Greene, THE HUMAN FACTOR: Was looking for a simply engaging novel and found this on the bookshelf. I don’t know that I’ve ever read another Graham Greene novel, and I feel guilty about that for some reason. I have read a few Le Carre books … and this reads about like that: we have a quiet MI-5 or MI-6 analyst office in London … someone is passing along secrets … there’s a history of problems at the agency in Africa, and the shadow of British colonialism is there but quietly … people drink a lot …. Not bad, but not thrilling, either.
Orhan Pamuk, THE NEW LIFE: Another road trip novel, this one by the acclaimed contemporary Turkish novel. This reads like Kerouc meets … Eco … ? Like the two found themselves stuck on a bus together and Kerouc wanted to just live, man, and Eco is like, No, look at the patterns in life, there’s something else going on here, and then the bus crashes and they get out, look at each other, and walk opposite ways.
Kirsty Gunn, MY KATHERINE MANSFIELD PROJECT: Vieve recommended this since I’ve been on an intertextual kick (maybe not clear in these readings, but whatever). This is a “lyrical essay” about Gunn, a New Zealander living in England, receiving a fellowship to spend time in her hometown of Wellington in order to consider and write about Katherine Mansfield … also from Wellington and later a transplant to England, and considered by many the great New Zealand short fiction author. The book itself is beautiful–I have no idea how much it cost to print, but it was worth it. Very jealous of the design and funds. In terms of content, it mostly made me want to read …
Katherine Mansfield, THE SHORT STORIES OF … : In her work, Gunn writes about Mansfield being self-aware that critics found her stories to be too childlike … that they have a lightness to them that keeps them from deeper and more complex considerations. Which, totally. But also who cares? Mansfield’s stories are childlike in that they narrow in on characters who seem to emotionally vibrating against the immediate issues in their lives very much like children … these are narrow and tight and very funny stories at times. But they aren’t warm. Mansfield is a warm writer–the worlds she writes are alive, her prose is beautiful at communicating detail and motion–but she is very objective with her characters. She doesn’t kill her darlings, but she doesn’t let them get away with much.