The other day I wrote a piece about taking pleasure in reading. As a follow-up, below is a list of some of the things I’ve read over the past couple months. My criteria in making it were twofold: that the pieces be fiction and also be things that I enjoyed.
There’s little in the way of endorsement and even less in the way of critical examination. It’s simply a list, and if it leads some reader to some enjoyment then it’s served its purpose well.
* Michael Chabon, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh; Wonder Boys; The Yiddish Policeman’s Union; Gentlemen of the Road. I know, I know—too much Chabon. Actually, that should be an interrogative, as in, Too much Chabon?, the simple answer to which is never. Without delving into the plots of each there’s a great variety of styles in his work and I find it all to be a pleasure. In short, I just don’t think you can go wrong with him.
* Jonathan Dee, The Privileges. A finalist for this year’s Pulitzer (which ultimately went to Jennifer Egan for A Visit from the Goon Squad, which to my mind was great in parts and sluggish in others), Dee’s story follows the meteoric rise of an increasingly wealthy family in Manhattan. The story is well written and moves along snappily, and it eschews traditional arc but thankfully avoids overly obvious and pedantic social criticisms a la Yates’ Revolutionary Road. (I promise this is as snooty a write-up as I’ll give any on this list).
* Dave Eggers, You Shall Know Our Velocity. I haven’t followed Eggers closely since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which I remember greatly enjoying. Velocity makes the list with some equivocation. There were parts of this I liked—the notion of struggling with our great American everyday wealth in the face of most others’ terrible poverties is gripping to me—but there were large swaths I despised, and I’m not just saying that because McSweeny’s has yet to publish any of my stories.
* F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. I got the bug once again. Sure, it’s great writing, a classic American tale and one well worth your time. However, if you’ve never read it you can just wait till the movie comes out. Again. (As Scorcese has shown over and over, you can’t go wrong with DiCaprio.)
* Richard Flanagan, The Sound of One Hand Clapping. One of my favorite contemporary writers (and not only because he’s from Tasmania, which is something that just sounds awesome), this is a touching story about loss, struggle and attempts at some sort of redemption.
* James Frey, Bright Shiny Morning. That’s right: you remember James Frey, the guy Oprah called to the carpet for fabricating his memoirs. He finally placed himself in the right genre and wrote a very sharp, moving and insightful homage to Los Angeles. The style’s clipped and functional, the vignettes engaging and there’s an large cloud of disaster looming over everything. Plus, the character that’s clearly modeled on Tom Cruise is fascinating. I hope Frey sticks with the fiction—he’s a good storyteller and he writes fiction in a stronger voice than memoir.
* Dashiel Hammett, The Glass Key; The Dain Curse; The Thin Man. Sometimes 1920’s tough-guy fiction is exactly what the doctor ordered. Dain got a little thin and I think out of all his work I still prefer The Maltese Falcon, but you always know you’re going to get a twisted, intriguing and hard-driving plot by a master of the form.
* Josephine Johnson, Now in November. This was Johnson’s first book, written when she was only 24, and it won the Pulitzer in 1935. It’s terribly beautiful and terribly sad, and like any great story it creates it own unique pacing and time.
* Steven Millhauser, Martin Dressler; In the Penny Arcade. Another Pulitzer winner, Dressler‘s a tale not unlike Dee’s, only a couple generations removed and with a little less development; I understand that it was meant to represent much about American ambition and rise throughout the 20th-Century, and while it was well-written I never really liked the characters a great deal. In the collection that is Arcade, “August Eschenburg,” was one of the best stories I’ve read in a long, long time, especially if you’re at all curious about what’s involved in creating art.
* Christopher Moore, Practical Demonkeeping; You Suck; A Dirty Job. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, he is like literary candy. But hey, sometimes my sweet-teeth crave it. As in most of his stuff there’s enough sincerity to offset the bonkers, and while I still think Lamb is his benchmark, he’s always a pleasure.
* Amos Oz, Scenes From Village Life. This is a well-written series of stories, especially the first. A lot of this never really engaged my imagination, and like Eggers it goes on the list with the asterisk of hesitation.
* Tom Perrotta, The Wishbones. I’d never read any of Perrotta’s novels before, though I’d seen both Election and Little Children. Wishbones is a fun read about a guy fumbling through his 20’s/30’s trying to make it as a wedding musician. There’s some good stuff in here about growing up and finding one’s way, and as it concludes it never feels heavy-handed or manipulative.
* John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley. I know that I promised fiction-only, but a lot of this travel narrative has since been shown to be, like Frey’s memoirs, greatly manipulated. But who cares? It’s still fun and engaging, and Steinbeck finds a voice at once kind and open while not afraid of passing criticism. It’s a great window into an America that simultaneously does and does not exist any longer.
* Magdalena Tulli, Flaw. Tulli is a present day Polish writer whose work continues to slowly sneak into English translations. I really liked this book a lot: the concept is very unique and creates an interesting window into what life at times must have felt like under a totalitarian regime. The writing toys perpetually in the conditional tense and you’re never entirely certain how certain things may be. The ease with which she runs through her sentences reminded me at times of Javier Marias, another contemporary European who isn’t afraid to dally in the realm of thinking and possibility at the expense of perpetual action. However, like Marias, I don’t necessarily recommend this book to those who like plot-heavy books.
* Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five. I first read this my freshman year of high-school and have read it innumerable times since. It’s ridiculous and absurd and terribly sad all at once, and I can’t imagine any better way to write about war. I’ve heard people complain that Vonnegut is weird and dark, and yes, he’s very much both, but I think he was one of the best and out of all of his stuff this is still my favorite.