5 best books of the year

  1. “Cherry” by Nico Walker — Walker’s precocious debut novel is tough, streetwise and gruesomely war-torn. It is ugly, scabby — drugs, crime, graphic combat violence — yet lovely still, bristling with heart, candor and raw youthful love that throbs unvarnished truth. What emerges is a pungent, probing snapshot of America today, what has been dubbed “(perhaps) the first great novel of the opioid epidemic.” 

2. “There There” by Tommy Orange — This smashing debut is a novel of ambient beauty and a penetrating portal into urban Native American culture. It’s a world at once broken, squalid and, by the skin of its teeth, empowered. The writing swings, crackling with observational fire. Much of it hits home, like a lightning jag, pulsing with candor and woe.


3. “Kudos” by Rachel Cusk — My favorite book in Cusk’s remarkable Outline Trilogy, this slim volume continues a minimalism that feels maximalist, a headlong plunge into the circumscribed but deeply philosophical world of a single female protagonist who’s on a first-person journey amidst many places and people. Cerebrally and queerly enthralling.

4. “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh — A young woman is determined to hibernate from life via shelves of pharmaceuticals and we don’t quite know why. She is a wreck, in cryptic self-exile. This wiggy, sometimes wayward study in alienation is at once comical, unnerving, depressing and iridescent.

5. “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History” by Yunte Huang — The lone non-fiction book in the bunch, this sensitive, captivating and occasionally creepy biography of conjoined twins Chang and Eng is a strange tale, a sad tale, one of courage, dignity, triumph and increasing oddness, yet one of naked humanity and pulsating historical vitality.  

Bonus best: Classic book of the year, “The Easter Parade” by Richard Yates, from 1976, whose grim opening line sets a searing tone: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life … ” By the author of 1961’s caustic suburban masterpiece “Revolutionary Road.

And, as always, I chucked aside the predictable pile of unsatisfying titles, including Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s hyped stories “Friday Black” and Lauren Groff’s collection “Florida, which is brawny, but I was distracted by stronger stuff. (I also thought her 2015 novel “Fates and Furies” was hysterically overestimated.) 

Good but overrated: “The Mars Room” by Rachel Kushner. I gladly finished it. Not bad, not brilliant. Same goes for Nick Drnaso’s perplexingly ballyhooed “Sabrina,” the first graphic novel to make the Man Booker Prize longlist. A few grades above meh.

Best summer reading (so far)

The damn summer is nearing its damn end and I still have at least two books I want to finish before autumn (dear, dear autumn) introduces its cool, dry resplendence. I will tackle Jamie Quatro’s debut novel “Fire Sermon” and Nick Drnaso’s ballyhooed “Sabrina,” the first graphic novel to make the Man Booker Prize longlist.

It’s been a fine summer reading-wise, with lots of pleasantly prickly fiction. I’m noting the best books I’ve read during the moist months so far. (Some of these blurbs, where noted, are recycled from prior blogs, but you won’t remember anyway.)

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Rachel Cusk’s extraordinary Outline trilogy, starting with “Outline” in 2015 and concluding with “Kudos” this year, presents a minimalism that feels maximalist, a headlong plunge into the rather circumscribed but deeply philosophical world of a single female protagonist who’s on a first-person journey amidst many places and people, and it’s cerebrally and queerly enthralling. Restless and ruminative, each book is short, about 250 pages, and you can start with any of them. (I think “Kudos” is my favorite.)

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A beautiful, privileged young woman is determined to hibernate from life via shelves of pills and pharmaceuticals, and we don’t quite know why. It is the cusp of 9/11 and the only people in her life are a mean sometime-boyfriend, a sort-of best friend and the indifferent fellows at the corner bodega. She’s a wreck, in cryptic self-exile. This wiggy, sometimes wayward study in alienation is at once comical, unnerving, depressing and iridescent. Yet, as good as it is, it’s not as fine as Moshfegh’s …

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She types with talons, and it’s beautifully thorny, particularly in these indelible tales. As noted in a previous post: “Moshfegh’s stories are spare and wicked, laced with a perfect pinch of transgression, enough to fill an eye-dropper. They are comic and you laugh, but there’s dried blood in them.” I’d read them again in a (skipped) heartbeat.

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I again quote a previous blog post: “This smashing debut by Tommy Orange is a novel of ambient beauty as well as a penetrating portal into urban Native American culture. It’s a world at once broken, squalid and, by the skin of its teeth, empowered. The writing swings, crackling with observational fire.” Look out for this one to sweep some prizes.

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A funny, wry and almost gnomic novel about love, marriage (and its dissolution) and raising an inquisitive daughter in Brooklyn. So singular, it’s hard to describe, this brief, breezy book is rife with wisdom, borrowed (the Stoics to Kafka) and original. It’s a pure delight, a glittery gem, in which epiphanies and head-nodding observations abound. It seems to introduce a new fiction form, and it’s a sort of masterpiece.

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Again, from a prior blog post: “Amie Barrodale’s ‘You Are Having a Good Time’ is a gratifying off-kilter kick, a spasm of spare, elusive, funny tales that are touched by mystery, an alluring unknowability. With cavalier irreverence, she throws a strobe-light on aberrant facets of the human condition.” A rare find, a dissonant joy.

Having a ‘Good Time’? Me too.

Finished Tommy Orange’s debut novel “There There” — terrific, explosive — and I’m now onto Amie Barrodale’s arch short stories “You Are Having a Good Time.” After just a few of these fun-size fictions, I am firmly in the book’s thrall. The title alone thrills me a little.

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I am glad I’m reading “You Are Having a Good Time,” because I am indeed having a good time. But frankly the stories are a lucky place holder for a book I’m waiting to arrive, “Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude,” by travel journalist Stephanie Rosenbloom.

The book is about her year traveling solo in Paris, Istanbul, Florence and New York — four of my favorite cities, especially the first two — and all that she loved, loathed and learned basking in that life-expanding mode of emancipated alone-hood. I’m an inveterate solo trekker enamored with the places she visits, so Rosenbloom and I might have a lot in common.

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Amie Barrodale

For now, Barrodale’s “You Are Having a Good Time” is a gratifying off-kilter kick, a spasm of spare, elusive, funny tales that are touched by mystery, an alluring unknowability. With cavalier irreverence, she throws a strobe-light on aberrant facets of the human condition.

Barrodale conjures “stories that don’t behave as you expect stories to behave,” notes the book flap. “Beautiful or Grotesque?” asks the headline on a review of the 2016 collection.

Or there’s this review headline: “Stories Exploring the Misguided, the Unrequited and the Mortified.” That review concludes: “None of these stories explain themselves willingly.”

That is true. Take “The Imp,” in which a possible ghost upends the relationship of a man and his pregnant wife. A tarot reader is involved. Or the bleakly comic “Night Report,” which follows a troubled woman to a New Age mountain retreat where she breaks down and declares, “I wish that I were dead. I’m heartbroken, and if I had a gun I would use it. … I’d shoot Eve. Thank you. I’d shoot Eve in the chest.”

Then there is “Frank Advice for Fat Women,” which opens with a dry, quizzical flourish: “A woman who was lonely and depressed should begin by getting on some medication. She should clean her house and throw away clutter. After that, Dr. Sheppard told his patients to lose weight and wear dresses.”

Her eye for detail is keen: “The restaurant was empty except for a guy at the bar. He was a little chubby. I could tell he was single because he was wearing white tube socks with black dress shoes. His jeans were too tight on him. I don’t mean that he had on skinny jeans. I mean that he had on jeans that were two sizes too small, and he was uncomfortable. He kept squirming, fooling with his phone. …  Outside, through the window, I saw an old guy stop under a tree, pull down a branch, and smell a flower.”

On love: “Being torn apart is what a relationship is. So don’t be afraid. Play the game.”

The stories groove to mercurial rhythms, and sometimes seem to bear a torch, in search of a point. They withhold facile answers and spurn tidy bows. They’re fun like that, and funny. They are dark, but giddy.

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Barrodale’s stories — this is her only book — are a cousin to the blithely jagged fiction of Ottessa Moshfegh, who’s an avowed fan. “It’s one of my favorite books,” she recently said. “Like (Michael) Ondaatje, Barrodale makes me hold my head and ask, ‘How?’”

Moshfegh shouldn’t be too envious. She’s the better writer, more probing, bolder, weirder. But Barrodale is a force, an alchemist of the odd, fabricating devilish modern tales that totter your balance and leave your mouth dry.

 

More highly finicky reading

I’m the worst. I’m impatient. I’m mean. I’m discerning. I have taste. When it comes to books, I am ruthless. I’m even worse with movies. Most don’t stand a chance.

I have put down four books, closed them for good well before the 100-page mark, in the past two and a half weeks. Suffused with sorta-guilt — ah, not really — I swan to the next book, hoping for gems and genius. I am an optimist garbed as a very dark pessimist.

Mining this small stack I located gold — the books are by literary heavyweights, after all, and they do often gleam — but I also found fool’s gold, which I will not abide.

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The yeasty comic novel “Less” was the chintziest of the four. It won the Pulitzer Prize this year for fiction. What are you gonna do? I read, I shrugged, I shut. 

With wan humor tangled in wry, hackneyed observations about gays and straights and executed in lite-beer fizzy prose — “a quick, easy summer read,” said one critic, as if that’s a compliment — “Less,” by Andrew Sean Greer, reminded me of a gay-themed comedy series on HBO, one of those middling shows no one watches. The novel, says Greer, is “a love story, a satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time and the human heart.” Thanks, Mr. Greer, for defining “generic.”

I read some 75 pages of “Less” and I must agree with this writer who actually finished the book: It’s “chock-full of gay clichés that feel outdated, and the tone is generally one of superficial, unearned cynicism that sometimes drifts into cattiness.”

Yup. Even The New York Times, in an upbeat review, called it “too sappy by half.”

Zadie Smith writes with a magic wand; her language and storytelling gifts are things celestial (and she makes me gush floridly). I’m an ardent fan of her fiction — “White Teeth” glitters — but her 2012 novel “NW,” a typically vibrant latticework of people and place, didn’t grab me by the lapels, no matter that I don’t have lapels. As exceptional as the writing is, the story has a matte finish when I yearned for glossy. 

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Wade into Rivka Galchen’s hailed stories “American Innovations” and it’s clear why she is one of America’s hottest young fiction writers. She’s crisp, funny and fanciful, with a biting originality and a smidge of the surreal. But as much as I appreciated the collection, I put it down. I almost fell for it, then fashioned a one-word review: meh.

While there’s no shame in not finishing a book — I can’t believe people who feel they have to get to the last page even if it’s a slog — I can’t help but gulp and blush at this failure: Edith Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer-winning classic “The Age of Innocence.”

I did not get far in the rather slim novel. I found the prose cluttered and perfumey, chokingly Austenian (though without the giggling), and fustily 19th-century for my contemporary palate. (Oddly, I loved Wharton’s 1911 “Ethan Frome.”) Wharton weaves long, highly populated sentences of lace and crushed velvet, many of them woozy and lovely.

Problem: I kept picturing doilies. 

Antidotes to these literary losers are a trio of new fiction by some of the most acclaimed women authors around: “Kudos” by Rachel Cusk, “How Should a Person Be” by Sheila Heti and “Homesick for Another World” by Ottessa Moshfegh. 

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I’m knee-deep in that last title, a 2017 collection of stories by the precocious Moshfegh, whose novel “Eileen,” a darkly off-kilter character study, impressed and troubled me — just how I like it.    

Moshfegh’s stories are spare and wicked, laced with a perfect pinch of transgression, enough to fill an eye-dropper. They are comic and you laugh, but there’s dried blood in them. 

Some excerpts:

“He thought that the drugs we bought in the bus-depot restroom were intended to expand his mind, as though some door could be unlocked up there and he would greet his own genius — some glowing alien in glasses and sneakers, spinning planet Earth on its finger. Clark was an idiot.” 

“Our repartee would be rich with subtlety and sarcasm, as smart and funny as mid-career Woody Allen. Our fucking, like Werner Herzog, serious and perplexing.” 

“I hated my boyfriend but I liked the neighborhood.”

To me, that is dreamy writing, all at once blithely sardonic, intelligently aloof and drolly perceptive, attached to the stinger of a scorpion.

The next 5 books I’ll be cracking open

Far before I’m done reading a book, I know firmly what volume I’ll be cracking next. I keep an ever-replenished list of titles. Something is always ready, waiting, like the upcoming course at dim sum. 

As I wrap up “Inseperable,” the excellent new biography of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, I know what’s next. I’m taking a worn paperback of Kurt Vonnegut’s archly prophetic classic “Mother Night” (1962) on my trip to Amsterdam next week. Vonnegut’s breezy cynicism, swirled with empathy, a hesitant optimism and measured absurdism, feels just right for airplane reading.

After that, 10 books weigh down my list. But half of them get to jump the line. These are the next five books I’m plunging into:

516B2M5L8XL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve read three of Zadie Smith’s fine novels — “Swing Time,” “On Beauty” and, the best of the bunch, “White Teeth” — so I’m revved for “NW, her acclaimed 2012 tragicomedy about a slice of London and how its human patchwork intersects and interacts. The intellectually rangy Smith has a sorcerer’s touch, conjuring crowded, complex stories that can be mesmerizing jumbles: granular, moving, funny and expansively human.

If Rachel Kushner’s wildly hailed fiction “The Flamethrowers” didn’t blow me away, it was still a fresh, propulsively entertaining epic about a young woman whose love of motorcycles, art and action hurl her on a picaresque through boho New York and radicalized Italy. In her new novel, the hotly awaited “The Mars Room, Kushner pinballs from the pitiless realities of a women’s prison to those in a San Francisco strip joint and beyond for a seedy and violent, harrowing but humorous skip through sordid demimondes. Raves wreathe the book already. “Heartbreaking and unforgettable … it deserves to be read with the same level of pathos, love and humanity with which it clearly was written,” gushes one reviewer.

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Our Shakespearean laureate, that lord of the Bard, Harold Bloom lasers in on one of the canon’s preeminent tragic figures in “Lear: The Great Image of Authority, a thin but typically volcanic volume that’s part of a series of portraits, including Iago, Falstaff and Cleopatra, titans all. Lear, fallen monarch, disgraced father, receives the full Bloomian treatment, a richly personal, prickly and cerebral exploration of the character and his enduring mythic stature.

Andrew Sean Greer’s “Less, winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction, totally evaded my radar. I’m not even sure I’d heard of the novel until it cinched the award this month. I know so little about the bounding satire that I quote here from the dust jacket:

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“Arthur Less will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Saharan sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer-in-residence at a Christian Retreat Center in Southern India, and encounter, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on Earth he wants to face. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty. Through it all, there is his first love. And there is his last.”

OK, I’m hooked.

A writer friend of mine won’t read Ottessa Moshfegh’s fiction, citing a gruesome quotient of blood and bodily fluids. I don’t know what she’s talking about because I’ve never read Moshfegh. Her stories “Homesick for Another World” have been called “eerily unsettling … almost dangerous, while also being delightful, even laugh-out-loud funny.” Characters are “unsteady” and the “grotesque and the outrageous,” a la Flannery O’Connor, “are infused with tenderness and compassion.”

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She has “a big mind, a big heart, blazing chops, and a political acuity that is needle-sharp,” crows the publisher. “The needle hits the vein before we even feel the prick.”

I think my friend is crazy. This sounds amazing.

And on things bookish, I finally discovered a well-tread site fully worth your while: Literary Hub. Brain-cracking interviews, essays, reviews, profiles — I won’t go on about it; just check it out.