I’m an impatient reader. I get excited about reading a particular title, I crack it, read it, and allow it 50 pages to regale me. If I’m not enthralled or at least engaged by page 50, that book is going down. I can’t say how many books I’ve stopped reading at the mid-century mark. The humanity.
This summer has proven good for reading — fruitful, satisfying, nourishing. I think I’ve only put down two books, always apologetically. (As in all my breakups, it’s me, not them.)
One I did not cast aside was Elizabeth Strout’s mellow novel “Anything Is Possible,” a chiseled gem that’s really a collection of nine interconnected stories, deeply soulful snapshots of life, love, loss and more, whose subtlety has an easy-listening vibe.
I journal a lot. And in May I wrote that Strout’s book is “freeze-dried minimalism, pared and spare, miniaturist portraits so easy to read and follow but practically toothless. They don’t leave imprints, marks. Delicate as bird bones, the prose lacks the prickle and sparkle I’m drawn to — listless, not lifting — yet it still holds me.”
That sounds harsh, but I enjoyed “Anything Is Possible” — I gladly finished it — even though I hardly remember a thing about it, and I almost forgot I’d read it altogether. I guess anything is possible.
Rather more memorable books I’ve read this season abound. Here are five great ones:
Michel Houellebecq’s award-winning novel “The Map and the Territory” is all brawny brain, yet brisk and entertaining, pretty brilliant and laced with slashing erudition. France’s literary bête noire, Houellebecq’s reputation as an Islamophobe, misogynist and racist precedes him, so I braced for acrid ugliness. But this is a relatively mild story about the meteoric rise of a young artist and all the traps and trappings of an obscenely priced art market, and, for an extra twist, the murder of a writer named Houellebecq, whose portrait he had painted.
Art, love, money and death are shrewdly explored and a sparkling literary flair survives the book’s English translation. It’s pungent with sharp, funny insights like this:
“It’s impossible to write a novel … for the same reason it’s impossible to live: due to accumulated inertia. And all the theories of freedom, from Gide to Sartre, are just immoralisms thought up by irresponsible bachelors.”
And, on a more harrowing note: “As you approach the truth, your solitude will increase.”
From one despair to another: Matthew Klam’s mordantly funny “Who is Rich?” hurls its title character Rich Fischer, a washed-up cartoonist, into paroxysms of lust, existential turmoil and the maw of marital decay. Here’s Klam on the latter topic:
“It was just the usual struggle to stay in love, keep it hot, keep it real, the boredom and revulsion, the afterthought of copulation, the fight for her attention, treating me like a roommate, or maybe like a vision of some shuddering gelatinous organ she’d forgotten still worked inside her.”
A tart entertainment, this wincingly lifelike novel starts out breezily but deepens by the chapter with sometimes devastating insights, keen, unsparing observations on family life, marriage, infidelity and children, who he regards as wondrous, but also soul-killing and disappointingly mundane.
Bitter and despairing over his shambolic life, Rich spirals into a hell of his own mind. By the last 30 pages, he’s quaking on the edge. Love kills. Yearning destroys. But light does beam in:
“How do you do it? How do you span the nothingness? Through love, through music, through art, through the sharing of food, fucking and experiences.”
Billed as a novel, Eve Babitz’s crackling “Eve’s Hollywood” reads like a rollicking, site-specific memoir, pulling readers on a picaresque through Los Angeles and the author’s precocious and prickly teenage mind.
In this unsung classic, first published in 1974, Babitz is our beautiful, privileged tour guide, leading us to druggy parties, the Watts Towers, a favorite taco joint, encounters with rock stars, bums and bohemians.
Babitz’s prose is casual poetry, jazzy here, plainspoken there, always direct and evocative with smells, colors and emotions. She’s like a kid scrawling in a scrappy journal, her memories of parties and privilege unfurling with a blasé panache. She possesses the eye of an adolescent anthropologist, at once callow and cutting, seeing through it all.
Renata Adler’s “Speedboat” also blurs the border between novel and memoir, but more radically than Babitz’s book. Almost structureless, the story’s protagonist, journalist Jen Fain, hopscotches urban America, bumping into life and experiences in jagged, kaleidoscopic impressions. The fragmentary scraps, fragrant and alive, aren’t woven into a narrative tapestry, more a crazy-quilt, and that’s made the 1976 novel an influential cult item among writers like David Foster Wallace.
Partway through “Speedboat,” I noted in my journal: “Not sure what it’s about, or if it is, as it seems, slices and episodes of a journalist’s peripatetic life.”
I was right, but journalist Guy Trebay, writing in the book’s afterward, nails it: “By turns journalistic, diaristic, aphoristic, always episodic and mordant, ‘Speedboat’ is a novel made up of a series of sharply observed miniatures rendered aslant.”
That’s my kind of book.
Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” is one of those canonical masterpieces that no one has heard of. Published in 1919 but distinctly modern in tone and themes, this fine fiction is a cycle of 22 interlinked short stories limning more than a dozen characters’ lives in confining small-town America.
In patient, pellucid prose, Anderson plumbs work, religion, morality and the loneliness and isolation of life in fictional Winesburg. I found the quaintness of time and place relaxing and gently engrossing. The stories possess a simple sublimity, and taking my time through its pleasures was a joy. It’s a fast, clean read that isn’t without dramatic and emotional punch. A hushed knockout.