Upon reading my last annual bookathon, a friend asked, “So you still read fiction?” I guess he meant that, in this serious age, did I still have the time for it? I do. I did. I always will. I learned about World War II reading Mailer and Jones. About Vietnam reading Tim O’Brien, Robert Stone, Jim Webb. About Iraq and Afghanistan (just last year) reading Kevin Powers’ “The Yellow Birds” and “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain.
And on my bedside table right now is James McBride’s “The Good Lord Bird,” which just won the National Book Award as a tragi-comic take on John Brown and the ex-slave-boy/girl Henrietta (whose father said, “Henry at a” and the Old Man thought he said “Henrietta” and there we are) and their journey to try to free the slaves. I can’t wait to read it, although it turns out I am waiting, because I just bought the Roosevelt-Taft book by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
So, yeah, I still read fiction. And other stuff. To begin:
The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. In which the woman author (confounding some male critics) writes the Great American Novel about biker girl cum artist who does the New York ’70s art scene and ends up among latter-day revolutionaries in Italy. James Woods says approvingly that the novel “ripples with stories, anecdotes, set-piece monologues, crafty egotistical tall tales, and hapless adventures.” And that’s just in the first 10 pages.
All That Is, by James Salter. If you don’t know James Salter, that may be because he hadn’t published a novel in over 30 years. But at age 87, he still writes some of the best sentences in the English language. This is a mostly plot-free book about about World War II vet (the opening chapter is worth the price of admission) who goes into publishing and lives a life of various set pieces. Sounds boring? Trust me, it’s not. And speaking of novels, one of Salter’s publishing-world characters says, “The power of the novel in the nation’s culture had weakened. It had happened gradually. It was something everyone recognized and ignored. All went on exactly as before, that was the beauty of it. The glory had faded but fresh faces kept appearing, wanting to be part of it, to be in publishing which had retained a suggestion of elegance like a pair of beautiful, bone-shined shoes owned by a bankrupt man.”
Tenth of December, by George Saunders. I love short stories. William Trevor. Alice Munro. Hemingway at his best. Cheever. Carver. Saunders is among the best writing today. This collection caused a sensation when it was released back in January. It’s a dark and comic look at life as it is and life as it might not be. To see what all the excitement is about, just read “The Semplica Girl Diaries” and its take on consumerism then you’ll have to read the rest of the stunningly inventive, nothing-like-Trevor-or-Munro-or-Hemingway-or-Cheever-or-Carver collection.
The Son, by Philipp Meyer. This is the old fashioned Texas of the myth-makers, told with R-rated violence and sex (but mostly violence). It takes you across six generations of one founding Texas family from the frontier to the oil bidness, but told to us — as one reviewer put it — in the piece of Texas where Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry would meet. Part 1 of our “Son” series — fathers and sons and, in one case, fathers and sons and daughters.
& Sons, by David Gilbert. The father, maybe dying, is JD Salinger grown up. This is the story of the two sons he has ignored and the one son that, for mysterious reasons, he is obsessed with. There is a best friend and there is the best friend’s also ignored son who narrates. All the sons come together, and New York literary-style hilarity ensues. And, of course, how can you resist a book with an ampersand in the title?
The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. This the Great North Korean Novel, as imagined by the author. The experts say he got some of the details wrong, but the book, from my perspective, is dead on (and won the 2012 Pulitzer). If this is not exactly North Korea with its paranoia and its re-education camps and its horrible prisons, it is North Korea enough, told with just the right amount of humor — by a young man who may be no one’s son — and oh so much despair.
The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud: This is the story of the angriest 40-year-old woman in recent literature, so angry that one interviewer actually told Messud she wouldn’t want to be friends with her lead character, Nora. Messud gives one of the great responses on literature: “Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath, Saleem Sinai, Hamlet, Krapp. Oedipus, Oscar Wao, Antigone, Rakolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has written. Or Martin Amis? Or Arhan Pamuk? Of Alice Munro for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in trouble.” In any case, I liked Nora. And I like almost everything Messud writes.
The Unwinding, by George Packer. This is the book I wish I had written. I don’t know what more I can say about it, other than it just won the National Book Award. Packer, a writer for the New Yorker, took four families and, through their lives, explains so much of what has happened in America over the last few decades. The economic unwinding. The political divide. The state of the American dream. The outrage Packer feels for what has become of ordinary Americans. For you writers out there, this is how you use narrative in non-fiction to brilliant effect.
Year Zero: A History of 1945, by Ian Buruma. It’s the end of the war in Europe and Asia and Buruma tells the big story through the small ones. It’s the time of hunger and homelessness and wantonness and revenge and refugees and concentration camps and the realization of the extent of the Holocaust and the millions of displaced persons. When reading it, you can’t help but wonder how the recovery – any recovery – was possible. It’s my favorite kind of history, told from the bottom up.
The Beauty and the Sorrow, by Peter Englund. This book is from 2011, but it’s a terrific partner to Buruma’s book. It is another book told in personal narrative. It takes you through the war – and its 35 million dead – with a 12-year-old German girl, a British nurse in Russia, a German aristocrat, a South American officer gone to fight with the Turks. Englund calls it an unconventional history — an “anti-history.” He’s a historian and a journalist. You can see both in the telling.
Far From the Tree, by Andrew Solomon. I just got to this book on families and, I guess, otherness. It is the story of parents with children who do fall far from the tree. It’s more difficult these days to come up with the proper description and Solomon challenges us to think differently anyway. He talks about children with “vertical identities” who flow in a natural genetic stream from their parents. And then there are the “horizontal identities,” the deaf child of hearing parents, the dwarf child of normal-sized parents, the “recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors.” He delivers their stories not only with great empathy, but also with great wit and humanity and the critical ability to tell a story well.
Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. OK, this guy Kahneman is probably the smartest guy you’re going to run into. He’s not just a Nobel laureate, he’s smarter than most of the other laureates. Now, if you read this while frowning, you would be more skeptical of my conclusion than if you read this while you were smiling. That’s the kind of stuff you learn in the book. He takes you through a life’s worth of psychological experiments to explain how fast thinking (your immediate, intuitive response) affects slow thinking (our real thinking, which, he explains, is really a minor actor; it’s fast thinking that dominates). It’s a fascinating book told so even people like us can understand it. It’s the perfect book to buy on Black Friday. Think about it.