Readings Recap

Writ­ing this from my stand­ing desk, and to all my desk-bound friends out there, if you can switch to one, do. I’m a hap­pier, more refreshed per­son at the end of the day, and I attribute it to this change. Mean­while, I’ll be appear­ing at the fol­low­ing uni­ver­si­ties over the next cal­en­dar month:

Jan­u­ary 28, The Uni­ver­sity of Ten­nessee, 7 p.m.

Feb­ru­ary 20, Uni­ver­sity of West­ern Ken­tucky at Bowl­ing Green, 7 p.m.

Feb­ru­ary 21, Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­sity, 7 p.m.

After com­plet­ing Part One of my sec­ond novel, I put on the brakes to do some research. That doesn’t leave me much time for read­ing out­side my job, though I’m halfway through Richard Ford’s Canada, and Part One, I’m happy to report, was incredible.

But a recap: In terms of sheer num­bers, 2012 was not a great read­ing year, though in order, I read the following:

1. Signs and Won­ders by Alex Ohlin

A story col­lec­tion I blurbed and I only blurb a book that grabs me. Like many read­ers, I was stunned by William Giraldi’s NYTBR take­down of it—not my read­ing expe­ri­ence at all. Ohlin plots her sto­ries beau­ti­fully. Shit happens—a lost art in lit­er­ary fic­tion. I found myself tugged along by her nar­ra­tives, wait­ing to see how things resolved. Take my word for it.

2–4. The Brief Won­drous Life of Oscar Wao, Drown, and This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

My year of Diaz. Drown is a remark­able debut and I’m espe­cially awed by the final story, “Nego­cios,” wherein Diaz retells his father’s coming-to-America story, appro­pri­at­ing this ambiva­lent nar­ra­tive with­out exor­cis­ing his own demons of assim­i­la­tion. Oscar Wao has numer­ous stretches that bring the news, as William Gad­dis used to implore. Three sto­ries in Lose Her—“Otravida, Otravez,” “The Pura Prin­ci­ple,” and “Invierno”—are perfect.

5. A Ges­ture Life by Change-rae Lee

The sec­tion about the war is extra­or­di­nary and the novel is a study in emo­tional restraint and dra­matic irony.

6. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

I appeared with Mr. Shteyn­gart at the Fol­ger (a gas) and had the plea­sure of din­ing with him dur­ing a break at last year’s Fes­ti­val Amer­ica. The novel gave me crazy dystopian dreams.

7. The Typ­ist by Michael Knight

It isn’t easy to write some­thing as spare and mov­ing as Knight’s tale of a typ­ist nego­ti­at­ing post-war Tokyo.

7–8. Burn­ing the Days and All That Is by James Salter

I’ve never been shy about my admi­ra­tion for Salter, whose new novel is due out this April, a sweep­ing tale about a New York edi­tor dur­ing publishing’s hey­day. Still, if you’re new to Salter’s work,  I’d rec­om­mend his “rec­ol­lec­tion,” Burn­ing the Days, worth the jacket price alone for the descrip­tions of his Korean fighter-pilot years and his har­row­ing dog­fights with Russ­ian MIGs: “Behind us they had the scent of the kill, they could see the strikes; noth­ing would dis­lodge them. I was in panic. We were turn­ing as hard as we could and they were turn­ing with us. The altime­ter was unwind­ing. Strain­ing to look back, I could see them, steady and unmov­ing, like the pods behind you on an amuse­ment park ride that rise when you rise and go down when you go down, mechan­i­cal and effort­less.” I dare you not to get hooked.

9. Billy Lynn’s Long Half­time Walk by Ben Fountain

For many read­ers and writ­ers, Fountain’s National Book Award final­ist, Flaherty-Dunnan first-novel-award-winner, and NBCC award final­ist is the book of the year, and I wouldn’t be sur­prised to see it make the Pulitzer short list, if not win it. It’s tale of Bravo squad’s mis­er­able and ecsta­tic Thanks­giv­ing Day at a Dal­las Cowboy’s game that’s also send-off of the Iraq War’s con­tra­dic­tions and our soul-killing excesses: Amer­i­can max­i­mal­ism and its dis­con­tents. Its lan­guage soars.

10. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

If you haven’t yet read it, it’s as great as you’ve heard.

11. Swamp­lan­dia! by Karen Russell

Yes, the novel is occa­sion­ally uneven, but only occa­sion­ally. The book’s com­pletely orig­i­nal and its bil­dungsro­man within the novel, The Dredger’s Tale, is aston­ish­ing. I’ve read the first two sto­ries from Vam­pires in the Lemon Grove, her upcom­ing story col­lec­tion, and I’d bet any amount of money she’ll come to be con­sid­ered one of the country’s most inven­tive, inim­itable writ­ers. She’s the clos­est writer we have to Calvino.

12–13. The Inter­loper and Panorama City by Antoine Wilson

I read both nov­els by this comer before review­ing the lat­ter in December’s New York Times Book Review.

14. Gilead by Mar­i­lynne Robinson

If you haven’t read it, to quote my edi­tor, Gary Fisketjon, get a life.

15. Bat­tle­born by Claire Vaye Watkins

Another huge tal­ent, and a col­lec­tion equal in orig­i­nal­ity to Diaz’s Drown. Also a recently announced NBCC final­ist. Here’s my mini-review and Q & A with her from Chap­ter 16.

16. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jen­nifer Egan

I had the plea­sure of appear­ing with Ms. Egan at The Fes­ti­val Amer­ica. GS is great. You start it think­ing it can’t work, but it does, won­der­fully, and its trick is to make you feel time’s pas­sage. Going in I was dubi­ous about the power point chap­ter and it turned out to be one of my favorite sec­tions. A must read.

17. The Big Miss by Hank Haney

True, one feels a lit­tle slimy read­ing this. Not only does Haney cash in on his sev­eral years coach­ing Tiger but he’s also cloy­ingly earnest while sell­ing him out—not a win­ning com­bi­na­tion. Still, it’s fas­ci­nat­ing, and I came away from it hum­bled by the sac­ri­fices required to be as dom­i­nant as Tiger once was and, if there’s karma, may well be again.

18–21. Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk by Edward St. Aubyn

Amer­i­can fic­tion writ­ers I know are pass­ing this Brit’s nov­els around like some non-lethal form of crack cocaine, and we here across the pond are spoiled read­ing this quin­tet in sequence, released as a quar­tet by Pic­a­dor to coin­cide with the pub­li­ca­tion of the con­clud­ing novel, At Last, because we didn’t have to wait out the cycle. Con­se­quently the books feel like one mag­nif­i­cent, epic novel, a tow­er­ing achieve­ment about our strug­gles to come to some free rela­tion­ship with our past and enjoy some­thing like atone­ment and progress. On a tech­ni­cal note, Aubyn also ends his nov­els more grace­fully then nearly any­one I’ve ever read, except per­haps Salter.