Four of the Year’s Best Books

This post is intended as a brief personal supplement to all of the 2018 “best books” compilations out there—you won’t find many surprises, as the four books below will likely appear on most of those lists. I’ve restricted myself to fiction because it’s my primary interest, and also because I believe it does a better job of capturing the essence of things than non-fiction can.

None of these four titles directly tackles the strange and dangerous time we’re in. But all of them, The Witch Elm possibly excepted, reflect some aspect of our topsy-turvy present. Actually, The Witch Elm does as well, thanks to the hallucinatory aspects of key parts of its story. Tana French’s latest mystery rises to the level of “literary fiction” (as does most of her previous work) and appears on the New York Times 100 Notable Books list.

Here, then, are four very different books from 2018 that will provide you with enjoyable reading and resonate after you’ve finished them.

Gary Shteyngart's Lake Success. Photo: Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times.
Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success. Photo: Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times.

Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success provides the most direct take on present-day America. The novel, Shteyngart’s fourth, sends his protagonist, Barry Cohen, a rogue hedge-fund manager, on a bus tour of our discombobulated country. There is plenty of sharp social satire, as we’ve come to expect from this writer, particularly aimed at the moneyed class but sparing no one. Barry is a protagonist in the picaresque American road-trip literary tradition but he is also an oblivious, self-centered bungler acting out a privileged midlife crisis. He carries six very expensive wristwatches (Cohen, like his author, is a watch nerd) and a rock of crack cocaine (obtained after chatting with a Baltimore drug dealer) on his journey. I recommend Lake Success for its sharp observations of wide-ranging American inequalities and absurdities.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Photo: Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Photo: Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times.

If alienation is your thing, Ottessa Moshfegh is your writer. And who isn’t alienated these days?

Like Lake Success, My Year of Rest and Relaxation is darkly comic. But it is less satiric and more absurdist, and also quite a bit darker.

The unnamed narrator, an unhappy woman in her mid-20s who lives on the Upper East Side, resolves to sleep for a year. She is able to do this because both her parents have died, and the cash from her inheritance enables her to buy her apartment and remain free from work worries, at least for a while. (She has a job in an art gallery but loses it for sleeping in a storage closet during lunchtime.) She is also aided and abetted by a loony therapist (“Dr. Tuttle”) who prescribes staggering quantities of sleep-inducing drugs.

The year is 2000, and our narrator believes that “…when I’d slept enough, I’d be O.K. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories.” She proceeds to embark on her year-long sleep, waking each day for 2- or 3-hour periods to eat and/or watch TV before diving back under the covers. She is periodically visited by her quasi-friend Riva, a former roommate from college. Riva is big on self-help books and frequently dispenses advice which the narrator ignores.

Underneath her escape into sleep, the narrator is interested in art (“I wanted to be an artist but I had no talent,” she says). At the end of her long sleep, she finds herself at the Met in September 2001, mesmerized by a painting which she reaches out and touches. 9/11 is just around the corner.

I recommend My Year of Rest and Relaxation for its unique (if disturbing) voice and its strong, solipsistic focus amid the chaotic daily world.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers. Photo: W. W. Norton & Company.
The Overstory, by Richard Powers. Photo: W. W. Norton & Company.

Richard Powers’s The Overstory presents another unique perspective, this one somewhat more hopeful. Rather than retreating inward, Powers reaches outward to encompass an entire, hiding-in-plain-sight civilization that parallels our own: trees.

As Barbara Kingsolver writes in her Times review of The Overstory, “Trees do most of the things you do, just more slowly. They compete for their livelihoods and take care of their families, sometimes making huge sacrifices for their children. They breathe, eat and have sex. They give gifts, communicate, learn, remember and record the important events of their lives. With relatives and non-kin alike they cooperate, forming neighborhood watch committees—to name one example—with rapid response networks to alert others to a threatening intruder. They manage their resources in bank accounts, using past market trends to predict future needs. They mine and farm the land, and sometimes move their families across great distances for better opportunities. Some of this might take centuries, but for a creature with a life span of hundreds or thousands of years, time must surely have a different feel about it.”

People want to read about people, of course, and Powers accommodates with a wide cast of characters, all of whom have lives that intersect with trees in some way. This sounds formulaic; it’s really not. Nor is it anthropomorphic, as Kingsolver is, deliberately, in the paragraph above—Powers gives trees their due as amazing but horribly abused creatures, but he does so in the service of a compelling human story. In the process, he reveals how closely bound the fates of trees and humans actually are. Given today’s existential threats (climate change, nuclear winter), this could be viewed as an expansion of pessimism—two species in peril rather than one. But I find the implicit threat is offset by the incredible richness, in every sense, that trees convey. I recommend The Overstory as a mind-expanding way to see the wider world anew.

The Witch Elm, by Tana French. Photo: Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times.
The Witch Elm, by Tana French. Photo: Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times.

Tana French’s The Witch Elm is nominally a mystery, the first stand-alone novel outside her popular Dublin Murder Squad series. As a mystery, it’s first-rate—some of the story’s surprises will take your breath away. But this book has more than murder on its mind. The Witch Elm is actually a meditation on randomness and personal fate, and I recommend it both as a gripping read and a reminder to feel grateful for each day disaster doesn’t strike.

The Incendiaries: a Glowing Debut

R. O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries had built up considerable anticipation and buzz before its publication on July 31. In part, this was due to superb marketing, on both the publisher’s and the author’s part (Kwon is a whiz at social media and networking). For the most part, though, it was due to the novel itself, which is arrestingly good.

R. O. Kwon's The Incendiaries is a superb debut novel.
R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries is a superb debut novel.

I had the considerable good fortune to participate in a fiction workshop led by Reese Kwon earlier this year. Kwon is an engaging instructor, as one would expect. She was also generous enough to share several asides about the 10-year gestation period of her novel, such as the fact that she spent the first two of those years compulsively reworking the opening 20 pages. Kwon is on record as being absorbed by language at the molecular, syllabic level—she is acutely attuned to sound and rhythm, and to how these serve meaning. I suspect her original intention was for nearly every sentence in her novel to stand alone as poetry, and in fact many of these sentences survive in the published version. She is a beautiful writer.

The plot opens with a bang, deliberately so. The rest of the book is then given over to an exploration of the elements and events leading up to the terrorist blast. This in accomplished by interweaving vignettes from the point of view of the three principal characters, always in the same sequence: Will, a student at a leading Hudson Valley college, John Leal, a cult leader with a mysterious past seemingly tied to North Korea, and Phoebe, Will’s sometime girlfriend.

Will’s point-of-view is the dominant one, because he is deliberately trying to achieve a coherent and comprehensive explanation for the events that take place. Will wants meaning. But no such explanation, at least with the comprehension Will desires, can be reached. Its absence does nothing to impede the interest generated by the novel’s characters, though, and indeed the absence of “complete” answers for all complex human affairs seems to be part of the novel’s message. Loss of faith is the major theme here. There can be no all-encompassing answers, ever.

The Incendiaries has one of the finest, most beautifully rendered endings I’ve read in quite some time. I’d quote it for you, or at least a portion of it, but I’d much prefer you read this short novel in its entirety instead. Highly recommended.

DAMN—Hip Hop Wins a Pulitzer

As the last American Nobel Laureate for Literature once wrote (and sang), “the times they are a-changin’.” Of course they are, they always are. But it’s not everyday that people are unlucky enough to witness cataclysmic change in the making, as at present. Change this large and this momentous filters out to everything, naturally including the arts.

Bob Dylan’s controversial Nobel Prize in 2016 is one recent example. Dylan is widely acclaimed for his “lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power,” as a special 2008 Pulitizer Prize citation noted. One of his ballads (“Boots of Spanish Leather”) was even included in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, 5th edition. But the Nobel Prize for Literature? That was unexpected and, many believe, undeserved. Meanwhile, Philip Roth, who had been expected to win this prize for years, has died.

Kendrick Lamar: some inventive rhythm and lyrics. Album image: Wikipedia.
Kendrick Lamar: some inventive rhythm and lyrics. Album image: Wikipedia.

Now we have another sign of changin’ times, in the latest Pulitzer Prize for Music. It went to hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar for his album DAMN. This 2018 award marks the first time someone from outside the realms of classical music and jazz has won.

It should be acknowledged at this point that both of these famous prizes, and in fact all prizes, are inherently flawed—they frequently do not go to the most deserving recipient. Indeed, after winning a Pulitzer in 2003, composer John Adams expressed “ambivalence bordering on contempt” because “most of the country’s greatest music minds” had been long ignored. Just as Philip Roth was repeatedly ignored by the Nobel Committee (which will not make an award in literature this year due to a sex scandal, another sign of the times).

DAMN, in context, is actually quite good. Lamar has an inventive rhythmic sense that lifts these songs out of the ordinary; his lyrics surpass the current general standard as well. Songs like “DNA” and “Humble,” while recognizably hip hop, have musical appeal beyond the genre. If “genre” is even the appropriate word here—hip hop is now the most popular “popular music” we have. In addition, songs like “Fear” express current racial relations in this country quite powerfully. All in all, then, if the Pulitzer people had to shake things up, they shook things up in a generally positive way. Still, I hope the prize reverts to a composer next year.

Everything Now

Arcade Fire’s fifth studio album was released on July 28 to mixed reviews. Really mixed reviews—critics seemed to either love or hate the album. Its Metacritic average score of 66 translates to “generally favorable” reviews, but this is simply due to the averaging of far ends of the critical spectrum.

Arcade Fire's fifth studio album. Cover: Wikipedia.
Arcade Fire’s fifth studio album. Cover: Wikipedia.

The Times and the Guardian are exceptions to the “love it or hate it” rule; both provided genuinely mixed reviews. The Guardian wrote that the desire “to experiment musically isn’t enough to make Everything Now a bad album – there are songs worth hearing and genuinely thrilling music here – but rather a flawed one.” The Times said “The title song finds a breezy balance between earnestness and exhilaration. Elsewhere, that balance falters, and Everything Now becomes a slighter album than its predecessors.”

I’ve been a fan of the Canadian band from the beginning and my own view of Everything Now more or less echoes that of the Times and the Guardian, but with a bias toward the positive. There are some marvelous earworms here, and Arcade Fire’s perceptive critiques of modern society remain (though the perspectives have shifted somewhat). This time the targets are extreme consumerism (“Everything Now”) and media proliferation (“Infinite Content”). The concomitants to these, depression and suicide, are also present.

These targets remain timely—the lyric “every room in my house is filled with shit I couldn’t live without” certainly resonates with me. And the relevance of “Infinite Content” is borne out by, among other things, the Times’s new “What to Watch” columns, which run several times a week and which imply all we have to do is work and watch TV.

Some have said (and I agree) that Arcade Fire’s music “grows on you,” and this album certainly does. If you like the band’s earlier albums you’ll most likely enjoy this one as well. It’s a bit different, but that only serves to expand the group’s horizons. And those tunes will draw you in.

Brilliant Fragments

Trump. Comey. Russia. All very important, yes, but also very exhausting to focus on exclusively. The mess in Washington is serious indeed but like all of our endeavors, it stems from the mysterious processes that govern human behavior. Granted, compulsive tweeting is a relatively new manifestation of troubled conduct. Still, it can sometimes help to examine behavioral patterns from another angle.

The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris.
The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris.

The writer Joshua Ferris is a case in point. He has an excellent grasp of the tragicomic nuances that underlie all our behavior, especially in intimate relationships, and The Dinner Party, his new book of short stories, may be a helpful distraction from the current news. Although there aren’t any direct political references to our present situation, the book may still help to put things in perspective.

Ferris is best known for his three novels (Then We Came to the End, The Unnamed, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour). Of these, the first and the third and most recent have been widely praised. Ferris’s second novel, The Unnamed, features a protagonist who is seized with an uncontrollable urge to walk and keep walking, no matter the consequences. It seems to have been widely disliked and/or misunderstood but I think it may be the best of the bunch, an existential journey that, as Tim Adams in the Guardian put it, shows us how “our biology will sooner or later remove us from the things we hold most dear.”

The Dinner Party is Ferris’s first short story collection and it continues the rather bleak existential outlook, leavened with flashes of humor, found in the novels. Some reviewers have savaged the book but the majority of reviews have been very positive. The stories vary somewhat in quality—stories in collections invariably do—but the best of them are very strong indeed. These include the title story, a devastating portrait of a disintegrating marriage and also the consequences of failing to know oneself, “A Night Out,” which deals with male infidelity, and “Fragments,” which counters with the female version.

The last story in the collection, “A Fair Price,” does have some direct relevance to America’s current social inequities. It concerns a clueless, self-involved privileged character and the day laborer he hires to help empty out a storage unit. The consequences of their interaction certainly gave me pause.

I think Joshua Ferris, only in his early forties, is one of the best writers currently working in America. If you’d like an extra helping of insight into the way a certain class of Americans (educated, liberal, urban) lives today, I wholeheartedly recommend The Dinner Party.

 

Slow Start for Saul

Sometimes America’s political fiascos and the world’s imminent threats become a little too much to bear. This is one of the reasons we have a “Golden Age of Television.” “Better Call Saul,” offshoot of the late, lamented “Breaking Bad” series, is one of the exemplars and Season Three is now underway.

It’s off to a somewhat slow start, especially in the season opener. Here, after a black-and-white sequence showing the erstwhile Saul as “Gene,” manager of a Cinnabon in Omaha, we have a plot line contrasting the warring McGill brothers, Jimmy (who is to become Saul Goodman) and the electromagnetic hypersensitive Chuck, with the dangerous but fascinating Mike Ehrmantraut.

 Bob Odenkirk in “Better Call Saul.”
Bob Odenkirk in “Better Call Saul.” Credit Michele K. Short/AMC.

The McGill brothers’ interaction is entertaining but leisurely. We learn that Chuck has secretly recorded Jimmy’s felonious confession, which Jimmy has offered in an attempt to help alleviate his brother’s (partially feigned) symptoms. Meanwhile, in a carryover from Season Two, someone has planted a tracking device somewhere in Mike’s car and he is determined to find out who and why. Again, this is interesting to watch but actual events seem in short supply.

Episode Two picks up the pace a bit: Jimmy learns about Chuck’s betrayal and is devastated by it (thus digging himself in deeper), while Mike begins to make progress in his quest to find out who’s tracking him. The extremely sinister Gus Fring pops up, which energizes things for “Breaking Bad” fans. At this point, one begins to realize this excellent series from co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould is likely to provide a compelling season after all.

As an unrelated bonus, Noah Hawley’s outstanding “Fargo” series starts its Season Three tonight as well.

Lincoln in the Bardo

This novel from George Saunders, probably America’s premier short story writer, is nothing short of an event. It has reached #1 on the New York Times hardcover best seller list, and the Times has produced a ten-minute “immersive narrative short” based on excerpts from the novel. The book’s publication has been accompanied by a spectacular audiobook version with a 166-person cast. Lincoln in the Bardo has received very strong reviews, both here and in the UK. And, it is the author’s first novel, which is yet another reason why so many people are so eager to read it.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
A novel from America’s premier short story writer.

Saunders’s short stories are phenomenal works of art. I think “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” from Tenth of December, does as fine a job as anything I’ve read of capturing the pre-Trump American zeitgeist. In fact, all four of Saunders’s short story collections are believably absurd renditions of life in America in recent years, poignant and heartfelt, with great empathy for those who are struggling and savage satirical depictions of the powers that be. Many of the dazed and confused characters in these stories would have no doubt voted for Trump, believing (like their real-life counterparts) they had nothing to lose.

It’s a long way from Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln, just as it’s a major transition from the concision of a short story, no matter how brilliantly rendered, to the larger canvas of a novel. Saunders used this analogy to describe the task: “It’s like I’ve spent my whole life making custom yurts and someone said, ‘Can you build a mansion?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, I could link a bunch of yurts together.'”

But Saunders has done much more than string his yurts together. He has done extensive research on Lincoln at the time of the Civil War, and on the unexpected death of his beloved son, Willie. The quotes unearthed have been used strategically to propel the story, alternating with the narrative of his characters in the bardo (Saunders is a practicing Buddhist). These are extraordinarily well done.

There are three principal narrators, in addition to Willie Lincoln, and each is trapped, for reasons unique to him, in the bardo, unable to move on. They don’t want the same fate to befall Willie, so much of the narrative consists of their efforts to persuade the lad to leave his transitional state, in a “matterlightblooming” phenomenon. Lincoln’s grief at the death of his son, and his heavy responsibilities as President in a time of national emergency, contribute to the novel’s elegiac tone. This is very different from the atmosphere of most of Saunders’s stories.

The unusual way in which the story is told somehow reflects the transitional state in which it is set, and does so with growing power throughout the novel. The characterizations, both historically based and invented, are wonderful. This is a book you will remember and think about long after you finish reading it.

Music for Our Times

With the Grammys coming up tomorrow, I thought I’d cast my vote in the Dance/Electronic category for Underworld’s phenomenal Barbara, Barbara we face a shining future. While I follow classical music and jazz more than popular music these days, there are some noteworthy exceptions and Underworld is one of them.

Underworld: Barbara Barbara we face a shining future
Music for today.

Back in the 90s, the group had some of the best and most popular dance/electronic albums of the day. Two of their songs featured in Danny Boyle’s controversial but widely acclaimed film Trainspotting, and the albums Dubnobasswithmyheadman and Second Toughest in the Infants were blasting people into a kind of dancing nirvana in clubs everywhere.

Barbara, Barbara is different—it’s very much of this time. From the opening track on, the album seems concerned with finding solace and inspiration where one can in the midst of confusion and darkness. The opening track, “I Exhale,” tells an abstract story of forward motion that opens out into “the lights aglow over the horizon.” It makes you feel those lights, and believe they are cause for hope.

Likewise with the other tracks on the album. “If rah,” the second track, has a line proclaiming “Life isn’t shit.” “Low Burn” urges listeners to “Be bold, Be beautiful, Free, Totally Unlimited.”“Motorhome” counsels us to “Keep away from the dark side.” And “Nylon Strung” closes the album with:

“Sliding between the dust of a scorched earth
Open me up
I wanna hold you, laugh for you
(Carry me).”

This is music for today. Barbara, Barbara deserves a Grammy.

Fiction in the Post-truth Era

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” the saying goes, and this poses a real challenge for fiction writers. More so than ever today, in our post-truth era. Yet it’s a challenge that’s being met, often brilliantly.

Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley.
Post-truth and reality in a modern thriller.

Noah Hawley offers an excellent example. Not only is Hawley a gifted novelist—his latest, Before the Fall, made the New York Times 100 Notable Books list last year—he is a masterful screenwriter as well, as exemplified by the first two seasons of “Fargo” in particular.

Much of Before the Fall concerns the 24-hour news cycle and the ways in which appearance vies with reality. In fact, the novel’s denouement revolves around these issues. But the book is such a gripping, suspenseful read that you’re only concerned with turning the pages. The issues raised do resonate after you put the book down, though.

Fargo
“Fargo,” from FX. Photo: Backstage.com

The story (not the plot) is similar in “Fargo.” Set in the Upper Plains, the series contrasts the (mostly) polite and plain-spoken people who live there with the violent and chaotic spin of American social and political change. It does not do this overtly; both seasons are set in the past. Yet it’s there, and you become aware of it as you go along.

In both the book and the TV series, Hawley does what writers are supposed to do: dig inside his characters to present their truth. That’s one thing that has not changed in our current climate and it means that truth continues to have a bright future—at least in fiction and film.

What Are You Reading?

Are you reading at all? Too many Americans aren’t, at least where books are concerned. And that goes a long way toward explaining the current state of the country. After all, reading expands one’s mental horizons and encourages understanding and empathy, both of which are in short supply these days.

To underscore the need to read, the New York Public Library and others have launched a #ReadersUnite campaign on social media. You’re encouraged to post photos of the book(s) you’re currently reading, along with your thoughts on the importance of same.

I’m currently reading a novel called The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Australian writer Richard Flanagan.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan
Winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

It’s not directly related to our current situation, concerning as it does Australian POWs in WWII, but it certainly encourages empathy. It’s a well-written page-turner, as well.

I tend to organize my reading in lists, to try to keep things manageable (this doesn’t always work). The lists are divided into “Classic” (e.g., The Brothers Karamazov), “Current” (e.g., the book described above and other recent books, both fiction and non-fiction) and “Craft” (e.g., The Best American Short Stories series)— anything else goes into a free-floating catch-all category. I try to read at least a book a week and usually succeed.

Reading and writing go hand-in-hand — as an aspiring writer, I read a lot and as widely as I can. If you’d like to become more proficient than the average social media post at expressing your own thoughts and feelings, then pick up a book! Pick up many books and keep reading. You’ll be the richer for it.