Category: Reading

Some Great Books I Read in 2015

Feed and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson – Two enormously intelligent books that were remarkable not only in themselves, but also for how different they were from each other.  Feed is a brilliant dystopia about the internet, consumerism, and environmental destruction.  Octavian Nothing is a historical novel set during the American Revolution, narrated by a young black boy.

Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood – This remains one of my favorite dystopias of all time.  It seems I am confronted weekly with some piece of news that confirms the chilling accuracy of Atwood’s predictions about people, science, and environmental destruction.

Jurassic Park, Timeline, Sphere, and The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – Crichton is a master of plot, and he’s also great at coming up with intriguing and sometimes terrifying ideas for science fiction.

A Mixture of Frailties by Robertson Davies – The coming of age story of an opera singer.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert – Once I read this absolutely perfect classic I couldn’t believe I’d waited to approach it.  Coming up for a re-read shortly.

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman – I still get chills when I think about how amazing this book was.  It’s a literary novel about two sisters set during the dot com bubble… but also so much more than that.  Goodman is notable for the warmth that comes through her novels.  Sometimes it seems too easy to write about all the bad stuff people do.  Goodman sees beyond that and makes you love everyone in the book–and somehow encourages you to see the good in people, even in this jaded 21st century.

The Secret Place, Broken Harbor, The Likeness, and In The Woods by Tana French – Beautifully written mysteries with a heavy dose of psychology and setting.  What more could a literary suspense lover want?

Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry by B.S. Johnson – A wicked little work of metafiction by a mid-20th century experimental writer

Bobcat and The City is a Rising Tide by Rebecca Lee – I’ve been plaguing all my friends by telling them to read Bobcat, a story collection that instantly became my favorite.

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai – Makkai is one of my favorite short story writers.  Also, this collection features a lot of musicians, obviously a favorite topic of mine.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami – Another book I’ve told everyone I know to read, and they’re probably getting annoyed by now… one of those books that’s good enough to get obsessed with, and weird enough that you can’t explain why.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl – A coming of age murder story narrated by a brainy teenage girl.  I admired the unique voice Pessl achieved, and the character of the girl’s father was quite memorable.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips – A pleasantly terrifying, Kafka-esque tale about that soul-crushing place, the 9-5 office job.

Orfeo, Galatea 2.2, and Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers – Powers shares my fascination with music, science, and technology.  He’s not exactly a science fiction writer, but sort of borders on it by being a literary writer preoccupied with science.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – This was a stunning, heartbreaking story of adolescent love. I was astounded by how well Rowell captured the awkwardness of teenage years and how it feels to be a teenager in love–as well as by the devastating story wrapped around the narrative core.

The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust – I tackled volume 3 of the 7-volume saga.  This one featured stalking a duchess and the tragic death of the grandmother.

Non-fiction

Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo by Nicholas Carlson – A study of Yahoo and the career of its current CEO, one of the youngest female CEOs

The Boy Who Played With Fusion by Tom Clynes – Not only the story of one scientific prodigy, but also an examination of the conditions under which genius can flourish (or falter)

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance – A fascinating biography of the most innovative, daring tech industrialist of our time.

The Double Helix by James Watson – Watson’s memoir of discovering the DNA molecule.  Interesting not only for its close-up look at a major scientific discovery, but also for Watson’s eccentric narrative style and for a glimpse at gender norms of the time (Rosalind Franklin famously got the short end of the stick)

 

Weird cool reads

palePale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire is a novel in the form of a poem, with notes and commentary by a crazed would-be academic.  Nabokov’s humor and cleverness are on full display.  It’s an essential read for anyone who enjoys his books.

 

The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu)

Science fiction dealing with physics is unusual, and the book’s cultural setting (China immediately after the Cultural Revolution) is quite interesting.  For me, the most striking part of the novel (besides the fact that half the physicists are women) was a virtual reality video game where physicists must decode the rules of a seemingly arbitrary planet.

Houhouse of leavesse of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

“House of Leaves” is an academic text concerning a (perhaps nonexistent) film, the manuscript of which is discovered by a lonely tattoo artist, who adds his own copious footnotes and commentary.   The novel’s form most closely resembles Pale Fire, but the mood is entirely different.  Pale Fire is satire, sometimes even burlesque, but House of Leaves is a creepy story about a house that is bigger inside than it is outside.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

This fast-paced mystery begins with the suspicious death of a famous filmmaker’s daughter and quickly becomes a tale full of ambiguity and eerie events.

sound

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

A list of weird cool books wouldn’t be complete without this experimental classic, which tells of a family’s decline through four memorably eccentric points of view.

What else to read if you loved The Secret History

likenessThe Likeness by Tana French

Detective Cassie Maddox is called in to investigate the murder of a girl who eerily resembles her–and who happens to be using the name that was once her undercover alias.  Pretending that the victim was only in a coma, not dead, Cassie infiltrates the girl’s strange group of five best friends to find out what happened.

The Secret Place by Tana French

In order to solve the murder of a teenage boy, two detectives must investigate warring girl cliques at an exclusive private school.

Tsoldierhe Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

John Dowell believes he has the perfect marriage and the perfect set of friends.  Then he discovers that everything his friends and wife have told him is false, and his entire life is based on lies.

 

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Blue van Meer befriends a strange group of kids and their charismatic teacher at a fancy private school.  When the teacher is found dead, Blue must find out what happened.

Ctazakiolorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Tsukuru Tazaki once had five very close friends who expelled him from their group for no apparent reason.  Years later, he tracks them down across Japan to find out what happened.

 

 

Favorite story collections

bobcat

Bobcat by Rebecca Lee

 

 

 

music for

 

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

 

 

 

hateship

 

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro

 

 

 

bass

 

Best American Short Stories 2008 (ed. Salman Rushdie)

 

Story acceptance

Here’s a tale about the weirdness of publishing.

I had five stories accepted for publication this year so far.  Three of them I had spent effort on and liked, but I knew they weren’t anything brilliant.  I placed them in journals I was happy with after the usual amount of effort.

One of these stories I had actually written years ago, back in senior year of college when I was first attempting to write seriously.  The original draft of the story was long and laborious.  I abandoned it after I used it as my writing sample for a workshop application and was promptly rejected.  This spring, I was going through old stuff and found this story and thought it wasn’t as bad as I remembered.  I spent two days cutting its word count in half and replacing some of the truly awful dialogue (dialogue has always been a weakness of mine, and still is).  I figured I’d submit it just because, but wasn’t expecting anything.  It was accepted within weeks, to the first place I sent it, a journal that had been rejecting me for quite some time.

The last story is my favorite story I have yet written.  It went through about nine intensive revisions last spring.  I initially submitted it to all the top journals, getting many positive, personal responses but no acceptances.  I have been submitting it for over a year now, to 129 journals in total.  It was finally accepted by Jelly Bucket today.

It’s been hard to have my favorite story rejected so much, while lesser stories were accepted more quickly.  I think part of the reason is the story is about depression, and people who haven’t experienced it just don’t get it.  The most common critique was that people wondered why the main character is so unhappy.  I didn’t want there to be a reason because that’s what depression is; there isn’t one specific reason to be unhappy.  Giving my protagonist a reason would validate all of those cheerful types who think you can choose your mood.

Anyways, I think the story’s darkness perhaps prevented it from getting accepted at many journals where it was in the final rounds.  So thank you, thank you, thank you Jelly Bucket for giving a home to my favorite story!  I am so deeply grateful that “An Inquiry Into the Nature of Happiness” will finally appear in print.

Some Favorite Contemporary Writers

Allegra Goodman

cookbookAllegra Goodman’s novels are pristinely written.  They deal with interesting, relevant topics that other literary writers ignore.  For instance, Intuition deals with scientific fraud, and The Cookbook Collector is about computer start-ups, among other things.  Goodman handles her characters with a kindness that is rare in literary fiction, and actually uplifting to read.  It gives one hope that such an intelligent writer sees reason to be optimistic about human beings.

Richard Powers

galateaThis is another writer whose work acknowledges the social consequences of scientific and technological innovations.  Examples include Generosity: An Enhancement, about genetics and the genetic predisposition to happiness, and Galatea 2.2, about teaching a computer to read.  Generosity is the only literary novel I know of that addresses germ-line editing, which is almost within our capabilities.  Powers does write in a rather dark vein, meditating on threats to humanity such as environmental destruction and nuclear bombs.  But I appreciate that Powers dares to be intellectual, original, and relevant.

M.T. Anderson

TFeedhis is one of the most versatile, creative writers I’ve come across.  His novel Feed is an insightful, relevant, terrifying dystopia.  It follows teenagers who have internet chips implanted in their brains, which they use to chat, watch TV, and order a constant stream of clothes and other products.  A major theme of the book is how eager we are to look away from relevant problems, even as we’re destroying the planet and even ourselves.  It deals with materialism, environmental degradation, and addiction to the internet.  Anderson is also publishing a non-fiction book on Shostakovich this fall, which is exciting for fans of classical music like myself.

Megan Abbott

Abbott dare mewrites beautiful, suspenseful novels about dark things: murders, kidnappings, plagues.  It’s good that the books are short, because you will want to read them in one sitting.  Not only this, but her prose is poetic and memorable, some of the best in contemporary fiction.  My favorite novels of hers are Dare Me (cheerleaders gone bad) and The End of Everything (kidnapping, among other crimes).

 

Rebecca Lee

bobcatRebecca Lee’s story collection Bobcat is literary perfection.  She writes quiet, observant prose that occasionally lifts into a surprising and beautiful metaphor.  Her observations about characters are wonderfully striking.  I’m currently reading her novel The City is a Rising Tide.

Proust on Neurotics

“Submit to being called a neurotic.  You belong to that splendid and pitiable family which is the salt of the earth.  Everything we think of as great as come to us from neurotics.  It is they and they alone who found religions and create great works of art.  The world will never realise how much it owes to them, and what they have suffered in order to bestow their gifts upon it.”

From The Guermantes Way, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, p. 413-414.

Proust on Telephones

“It is she, it is her voice that is speaking, that is there.  But how far away it is!  How often have I been unable to listen without anguish, as though, confronted by the impossibility of seeing, except after long hours of travel, the woman whose voice was so close to my ear, I felt more clearly the illusoriness in the appearance of the most tender proximity, and at what a distance we may be from the persons we love at the moment when it seems that we have only to stretch out our hands to seize and hold them.  A real presence, perhaps, that voice that seemed to near–in actual separation!  Many are the times, as I listened thus without seeing her who spoke to me from so far away, when it has seemed to me that the voice was crying to me from the depths out of which one does not rise again, and I have felt the anxiety that was one day to wring my heart when a voice would thus return (alone and attached no longer to a body which I was never to see again), to murmur in my ear words I longed to kiss as they issued from lips for ever turned to dust.”

From The Guermantes Way, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, p. 175

Feed by M.T. Anderson

FeedA few weeks ago I was having dinner with someone who has traveled widely across the world.  She said that the worst city she has ever seen was Manila, in the Philippines, where slum-dwellers literally live in gigantic piles of trash.  It’s not their own trash.  It’s trash that gets shipped there from developed countries. The Philippines is so poor that they are willing to accept payment for converting areas of their country into massive landfills.

I was shocked to learn this.  I had never heard about it before.  I am an American concerned about preserving the environment.  I know that our relatively small population consumes a disproportionate amount of the world’s energy and produces a large percentage of its trash.  But I had no idea that, to keep our own land nice, we (and not just us–the linked articles also cite Canada and Japan as culprits) take advantage of poorer countries to use them as landfills.

It is just this sort of ignorance that Anderson addresses in Feed.  In one part of the book, the main characters visit a farm where filet mignon grows on bushes.  “It was really interesting,” the narrator says.  “I like to see how things are made, and to understand where they come from.”  It is a funny but sad moment.  It’s not hard to believe that some children today probably believe that all things come from Amazon.

Feed is a deeply troubling, upsetting book.  It is hard to read.  But anyone who consumes and throws things away should read it.  It describes a world where the moon is littered, all the forests are all cut down (air is produced by air factories), the oceans are completely dead, and even the suburbs built above the ground are slowly becoming toxic.  It is a world not far removed from our own, if we continue to live as we presently do.  Every day we use a vast array of products, each coming in its own disposable packaging.  We have no idea where it comes from or where it goes once we toss it away.  Most of us don’t care.

The worst part is, even if you are aware of the problem, what can you do about it?  Over the last few months I have been troubled by thinking about how many things we throw away.  Take a morning bathroom routine.  Most of us take ten-minute showers, using gallons of heated water.  Our shampoo, conditioners, and body wash come in plastic bottles.  We shave using disposable razors.  We floss and brush our teeth.  Flushing the toilet uses 1.6 gallons of water if you have the latest, most efficient model; it can use up to 7 gallons if your toilet is old.  And then there are the optional products–makeup, hair spray, sunscreen, lotions.

All of these come in containers that we will throw out.

Our society is structured around wasteful products in such a fundamental way that average people cannot simply choose to stop using them.  If you don’t take showers with shampoo, you’ll be an outcast for having greasy hair.  Same if you don’t shave.  We need to eat, but all the food we can buy in the grocery store usually comes in some sort of plastic.

It has always amazed me that people don’t seem concerned about human extinction.  When bacteria in a petri dish consume all the food in the dish and become engulfed in their own toxic waste, they die.  Humans aren’t some exceptional form of life that can live through such a scenario.  There are now 7 billion people on this one small planet.  The sum of our daily collective actions matters.  Unless we come up with solutions for reducing our impact, we are headed for oblivion.

A few short stories I admire

This list is not comprehensive.

Bread by Molly Dektar

Cuccaro by Molly Dektar

Pet Milk by Stuart Dybek

Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go by Danielle Evans

La Vita Nuova by Allegra Goodman (2010)

In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried by Amy Hempel

Transfer Station by Elise Juska

Hell-Heaven by Jhumpa Lahiri (2004)

The Briefcase by Rebecca Makkai

The Bear Came Over the Mountain by Alice Munro (1999)

Child’s Play by Alice Munro

Love and Hydrogen by Jim Shepard

Quality of Life by Christine Sneed

But it Moves by D.J. Thielke