What? I just wanted to beat the Millions to it.
I’m not really reviewing the year in anything. Don’t worry.
Here’s my thought: It seems about time for a check-in regarding what books have knocked you flat on your back lately. I want to know what you’re reading and loving, and by extension what I should read this summer as I attempt to pretend I’m a writer again, if only for a short while.
I thought I’d offer a brief rundown of (some of) what I’ve been reading, in case you’re not in the mood to read whatever is stacked on your shelf. My bookmarks reside in various places in these books, so don’t expect cogent analysis. Just some general thoughts. In no particular order:
The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead.
Here’s what I know of Whitehead’s work thus far: he loves world-building. Which is great, because he’s good at it. I am engrossed in the world of elevator repair and the great divide between those who intuit mechanical problems and those who have to see/feel the problem themselves, and our protagonist is smart, tough, ambitious and emotionally unavailable. I think I love her.
Green Girl, by Kate Zambreno
I began this post by talking about books that knocked you flat on your back, and ladies and gents: BOOM. This is the book. I finished this novel and immediately wanted to read it again. Whenever anyone at AWP asked me what I’d read and loved lately, I talked about this book until either their eyes glazed over or they asked me to write down the name of it, mostly to get me to shut up. I can’t do it justice in a few sentences here, though I’ve been wanting to do a full-fledged post about it. The novel is structured unconventionally; we have an unlikable protagonist; one could argue there is almost zero plot; Zambreno is playing (brilliantly) on the line level with repetition and rhythm; and the narrator of the novel, whose voice comes in suddenly and only a few of times, speaks about the the protagonist Ruth in an alternately maternal and violent manner. 2011, Emergency Press. Go. Right now.
God Bless America by Steve Almond
Look, if you haven’t read Almond’s work, you’re missing out. It’s as simple as that. I’m not sure I knew that story collections could be genuinely laugh-out-loud funny until I read The Evil B.B. Chow, and that’s not an exaggeration. But humor is just an easy place to start this discussion. Almond’s fiction never ceases to surprise me, in the best ways- how a story turns, where it ends, how he creates empathy for a character I’m not at all inclined to feel empathetic toward- not to mention that two of the weapons in his arsenal are rhythm and voice, and he knows how to use them.
To Assume A Pleasing Shape, by Joseph Salvatore
My first introduction to Salvatore’s work was the story “Reduction,” which appeared in Willow Springs 63, and my second was a reading at Elliott Bay bookstore in Seattle. Both were equally instructive and satisfying. Every single story in this collection is wrought with such precision that my first instinct was to sit down and write, to task myself with similar constraints of form and see what happened. A few stories stand out as particular favorites- “Reduction,” “Late Thaw,” and “Practice Problem,” among others- but you could flip to any page and find precise, controlled, long lines with a concern for language and rhythm that make the difficult work of this book look so damn easy. As I said, it made me want to sit at the desk and do some experimenting of my own, which is great, except that when I do I’ll remember how damn hard it is.
The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte
I have a particular friend who I always exchange books with. The last time he left town, we did an airport goodbye hand-off where I gave him Goon Squad and he gave me The Ask. Because he’s a better person than I am, he read Goon Squad months ago, whereas I’m sitting at 116 pages into The Ask. Stuck, at 116 pages. Here’s the problem, and this may be lazy and anti-intellectual and probably Communist, but: I’m not in the mood for this book right now. I’m just not. Is the voice compelling? Yes. Is it witty and clever? Yes. Should I be laughing out loud at a character named Vargina? Probably. But I’m just not feeling it. I’m not in the mood for another satire about a middle-aged white male loser who’s coming to terms with his mortality, while the reader alternately shakes his/her head and laughs at how pathetic the dude is. Truth be told, I suspect it’s just that I’m not willing to submerge myself in a sea of someone else’s self-loathing at the moment. Perhaps I should just tell this book, before I put it back on the shelf: it’s not you, it’s me.
This is Not Your City by Caitlin Horrocks
This book has been covered pretty well on Bark, from Shawn Vestal’s interview with the author to Laura Ender’s review. I’d like to resist the urge to slip into incoherent fan-girl rambling about this book, but I’ll tell you this: The copy of this collection that’s sitting on my shelf is the fourth one I’ve purchased. I keep giving them away, insisting that others read it. But if you don’t trust my taste, I will note that every person who I’ve given this book to has called or emailed to tell me how much they loved it. And they used the “L” word without my prompting. I think you will, too.
Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner.
This book was forced into my hands by another trusted reader during AWP– he bought me this book and I bought him a story collection I knew he’d love. Lerner is a poet by trade- a National Book Award finalist- and this is his first novel. The problem is, it’s good. Isn’t that infuriating?
Unbearable Lightness, by Portia de Rossi
Fact: this book is subtitled, “A Story of Loss and Gain.” That made me nervous. Very, very nervous. Do you get it, team? Loss and gain? Heyyyoooo. High-five for eating disorder word-play, amirite?
But here’s the thing: I’m about fifty pages in, and I really like it. The book has drawn me in, beginning with a prologue in which De Rossi details what was, for her, a horrible day, a complete loss of self-control that sent her into a spiral of shame and self-loathing: she ate six ounces of yogurt, instead of the two ounces she’d allotted herself for that day.
Now, could there something voyeuristic about this, something that feels a little bit like she’s an animal at the zoo? Let’s read about someone with an eating disorder so we can understand all people with eating disorders? But this book isn’t doing that- so far, anyway. I’m certainly interested in her struggle with eating disorders, but what’s really drawn me in are other things: Class issues. Her relationship with her mother. Her need for control. And this:
Average. It was the worst, most disgusting word in the English language. Nothing meaningful or worthwhile ever came from that word. In my twelve year old mind, there was no point in living if you were average.
Anyway. The writing thus far seems pretty clean and straightforward, despite some dialogue we don’t need, and I’m interested to see where the book goes. Here’s hoping I won’t be disappointed.
Apocalyptic Swing by Gabrielle Calvocoressi
I’m sorry, poets– this is the only book of poetry on this list, and that’s certainly a failure. But maybe it’s your failure for not telling me what amazing poets I should be reading. See what I did there? Anyhow, I really loved The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart (which is such a great title, by the way) and I’m enjoying this one just as much. I can’t wait to hear her read from this.
Which brings me to: Spokane has a kickass literary festival in April, and many of these authors are coming to it– which is, of course, partly why I’m reading their work right now. Go here to find the lineup and schedule. Of the books I’ve described above, Whitehead, Almond, Horrocks and Calvocoressi will all be doing readings, conducting workshops, participating in panel discussions and the like. Go forth and nerd out like you’ve never nerded out before, Spokane.