just an occasionally updated list that goes to 11
(note: other books I’ve looked at recently but haven’t yet worked my way fully through have been authored by Nadine Gordimer, Ursula LeGuin, Kevin Clouther, Ross Gay, Hanif Abdurraqib, Junichiro Tanizaki, WG Sebald, Jim Crace, and more)
Steven Dunn, WATER & POWER: Easily one of the strangest and best books I read this year, a hybrid fiction/non-fiction consideration of the impact of military service through the lens of gathered interviews, questionnaires, documents, a horrifying national museum project, and more.
Tracy Daugherty, LARRY MCMURTRY: A LIFE: An excellent biography about McMurtry, famously the author of Lonesome Dove … but also Terms of Endearment, the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain (co), the novel Hud was based on, and much more. Some great gossip (friends, maybe romantically, with Susan Sontag, Diane Keaton, and more), but also nicely situates McMurtry’s literary project as chronicler of the end of the overly romanticized Cowboy West.
Larry McMurtry, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW: Among many other things, this is an impressively structured book, balancing wide angles and intimacy in a seemingly effortless way. Sad, strong book filled with sad, strong characters.
Joan Didion, PLAY IT AS IT LAYS: The language is beautiful, of course, especially the early first-person chapters. But it fades into hazy downward-spiraling biopic (it’s fiction, to be clear) … and the dark and sad trajectory of the novel, at least for me, overshadows the intricacy of Maria’s characterization.
George Saunders, A SWIM IN THE POND IN THE RAIN: Saunders reads Russian classic short stories by, variously, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gogol, and Turgenev. The readings are generous, insightful, and lead to some fascinating exercises–this is a great book for fiction writers and teachers, if they’re in the mood for cheerful self-deprecating Saundersian guidance. If not, well, it includes the stories by four amazing Russian authors.
Anton Chekhov, THE LITTLE TRILOGY: The best part of the Saunders book is that it got me into more Chekhov (and Turgenev, whose story “Living Relic” is a little-known classic). Chekhov doesn’t need me to talk about how great he is. This trilogy of stories, about a pair of sportsmen on a bit of a journey, might be his best work.
Paul Theroux, HOTEL HONOLULU and THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR: Fantastic writer of scenic detail, clear-eyed about the self and others, and leans toward pomposity (which is fairly amusing). I wonder if writers like Theroux are still around, literaryish writers who I suspect weren’t carefully edited, who could just send in their seven hundred page manuscripts and have them published, then dive into the next project, generating tons and tons of pages every day or week. Good writer, but I wonder if the seeming ease with which he was published kept him from being great.
Lia Purpura, ON LOOKING: Beautiful, strange, wonderful book of essays. She gazes at the world, takes it in in all its complexity, and reissues it on the page in even more gorgeous, sad, strange complexity. Aside from Chekhov–maybe–this is the best book on this list.
Agatha Christie, THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY: In which someone cries out, “There’s a body in the library!” about once a page. Reassuring to know that Christie wrote some stinkers (still this one is amusing, at least).