just an occasionally updated list that goes to 11
MFK Fisher, CONSIDER THE OYSTER: “An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.” So the story begins. In all the best ways, Fisher puts the writerly mother-fuck in MFK. This slim little book was first published in 1941 yet reads like a braided essay published in the last six months. She is warm, funny, snotty, self-deprecating, clever, generous, arch–and well-informed and thoughtful, and an utter delight to read. (All those great things we love about the way Anthony Bourdain talked about food and life wouldn’t exist without MFK Fisher; this I honestly believe.) I’ll be ‘teaching’ this in a food writing class in the next year, and I couldn’t be more excited and grateful that it exists.
snippets from ongoing text thread with high school friends: “It’s BDE. What could go wrong.” “He’s the guy who has lighting (sic) powers. Do you even X File, bro?” “Is that Marana?” “Fall leadership?” “Couldn’t be bro, there are two wolves inside of you…” “I bet that chair could be an actor or actress” “The bear is not cute it’s itchy.” “Would He Man beat Perseus?” “zamfir pan flute expert and ladies man?” “Q: Tell–are you in Willcox or something? A: It’s this dump called Villa Borgese. Roma. Its the Goethe monument of course.”
Julie Trimingham, WAY ELSEWHERE: This is a wonderfully strange book that is only seemingly slight, 26 flash sections of ostensibly poetry (according to the publisher) but could be and probably is a blend of fiction and non-fiction travelogue–a book more of consciousness-in-the-world than of narrative (Renata Adler comes to mind). Quick but weighty, and smart, sad, and singular.
Umberto Eco, THE NAME OF THE ROSE: This book is so many things–clever, veiled, frustrating, impeccably researched, overly researched, funny, warm (pun intended), and sincere in its questionings and answerings … and never mind all that: later editions include an 84 page postscript in which Eco discusses his ambition and his process, and shares a great deal of thought and insight on how to best consider what fiction can and should do. It’s a master-class that might be even better than the novel itself.
André Alexis, THE HIDDEN KEYS: I “discovered” this author and the series that this book belongs to (the Quincunx Cycle, five novels each written in different genre styles, all set in and around Southern Ontario, with some recurring characters) by wandering the AWP Bookfair and asking publishers which books they recommended. The kind people at Coach House first recommended Days by Moonlight, a fantastic travel social commentary novel that I absolutely adored. The Hidden Keys, about a master thief who gets caught up in a secretive family history of inheritance and recrimination, is more plot-driven and a bit too narrow in its sights, but is a fun and inventive read nonetheless, and as a stylist, Alexis is just a pleasure to read.
Jonathan Franzen, CROSSROADS: This is a very well-reviewed book, though there are some exceptions, and I tend to side with the latter. The first of a trilogy, Crossroads follows a what American family in the early 1970s struggling seemingly with issues of faith but actually with issues of vanity, self-control, and substance abuse. The characters’ constant self-delusions, the lack of a convincingly articulated world, and the mechanistic plotting — all underscored by those fairly naïve if sincere questions of faith — make this feel, at least to me, like a soft novel by a writer who has at times shown himself capable of more edginess, of leaning into and snapping his teeth at the incongruousness of existence.
Anne Carson, PLAINWATER: She might be the smartest-seeming writer I’ve ever read–the sense I get, at least, in reading Carson’s prose is that the way her writing mind nimbly perceives and deftly models how to engage with existence (thoughtfully, vulnerably, warmly, attentively–and joyously) is almost overwhelming with intellectual and emotional wholesomeness. Not wholesomeness in the idiomatic –in the more literal way, as in the fully considered and fully felt experience of life.
Hisham Bustani, THE MONOTONOUS CHAOS OF EXISTENCE: One of the best aspects of this collection is how unrestrained both the style and voice are by convention. These stories are “imbalanced“–and that’s great because it’s imbalance that pushes artistic and emotional boundaries, it’s imbalance that takes risks and pushes readers into places that many authors fear are too bright, or too dark, or too risky. “I’m tired of turning the dials of history,” begins the story “Stardust,” and progresses to this later line: “Here’s a happy ending for you: may you all become extinct.” These stories are the sharp-edge remnants of broken mirrors, bloody and angry and bitter and entirely affecting.
Matthew Salesses, DISAPPEAR DOPPELGANGER DISAPPEAR: This book was more an experience of confusion than anything else — which is partially the point, as the narrator, Matt Kim (maybe?), is struggling simply to exist after being left by his wife (and child). He drinks too much. His cat is dead. He starts seeing doubles of himself and his girlfriend. Or maybe he doesn’t. He harasses his neighbors or they harass him. He goes to jail, maybe. He is put into many situations in which stereotypes of Asian Americans are problematic. This is an ambitious book, laudable for what it’s trying to do (and the real-life circumstances for where the effort came from), but it doesn’t quite hold together: a 297-page novel narrated by a drunk/confused/upset narrator leads more to confusion, for me, than emotional resonance.
Moon Bo Young, PILLAR OF BOOKS: Hilarious, strange, an onrush of off-beat flash fictions (maybe some poems?) that look at the bothers and lovelies of existence with a very keen and disturbed viewpoint. From “Lips”: “I inspect the half pair of lips. I put them down. I can’t read the lips. We become lovers.” A little goes a long way here–the perfect kind of book to flip through/read sections at random to start your day, or to end your day, or to smuggle into meetings.
Kazuo Ishiguro, KLARA AND THE SUN: Years ago in Reno, my wife and I would sometimes play Euchre (great card game) with another couple we knew. In Euchre, partners aren’t supposed to communicate to each other the cards they hold … but when we played, one person, the wife of the other couple, would always insinuate in not particularly subtle ways the cards she was holding; when I protested, she said this was just a part of the game. One day after one of her insinuations, I just told my partner the cards I had, clearly and aloud, and I was quickly accused of cheating, so I stopped playing and threw my cards in the air (this wasn’t quite so dramatic, just a momentary rebellion). This novel by Ishiguro has received a great deal of praise for how it uses a child-like POV to hint at the dreadful existences faced by AI humanoid robots and actual human children in a dystopian near-future. Hints can be exciting. They can also serve as evasions for fully engaging in complexity. IIt’s an interesting topic, very controlled writing, just not an approach I personally enjoy.