This is what I’ve read so far in 2016:
The Burn, James Kelman
This book of short stories came recommended by UC Davis poet and fiction professor Joe Wenderoth. Really strange and claustrophobic short stories, but with extreme phonetic/colloquial language that was fascinating to read. I didn’t finish it, but all the stories that I did read were about young men who felt trapped by their situations, and often by their female partners. Maybe I’ll pick it up again in a few years and love it, who can say.
Forty Stories, Donald Barthelme
There’s a reason all of my favorite authors list Barthelme as an inspiration. These stories were masterful, surprising, and often really fun. Like watching a world-class athlete of short fiction.
The Book Thief, Marcus Zusak
This had been on my to do list for a long time. The story was super effective, but the writing got to be a bit distracting in places. I was glad to have a YA book on the list to remind me that books aren’t all craft—story matters too. Or at least that craft doesn’t entirely depend on precision and economy of language.
Let Me Explain You, Annie Liontas
I read this because Liontas was my ENL 100F lecturer, but it was interesting to read a contemporary author’s first novel and get small insights into Annie’s process. The characters felt so vivid and well-drawn, and I always love stories and books that teach me about a craft I know little about–one of the protagonists is a butcher and chef, and the physical descriptions of her work were entrancing.
The Color Master, Aimee Bender
Aimee Bender makes me freak out. Her work is on another level; it’s so tender and surprising and fresh. I loved this collection.
At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Amy Hempel
Amy Hempel writes extremely economical stories that really get the job done. She’s high up on my ‘read more’ list after getting this collection at Pamela Houston’s recommendation.
Siracusa, Delia Ephron
I scored an advance reader copy at a literary convention and read this novel with the intention of writing a review to submit to a magazine, which I have failed to do. It felt quippy and smart, but also soaked through with New York-ish privilege, which was distracting. Everyone was so cynical and smart and attractive and mad at each other. I admired the work but it wasn’t my cup of tea.
Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury
This was recommended by a UHP administrator who read my project proposal, and it’s terrific. Really encouraging and thoughtfully written insight into a real legend.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
I don’t think I’ve ever connected so much to a work this old. Hurston’s dialogue and scenes walk the line of being ridiculous, but her narration is beautiful and elegant—together, the two open a portal to another world.
Native Son, Richard Wright
Tensely, claustrophobically written in super-close third person, this was tough to read at times. It definitely felt like the product of a specific time and place in history, but it’s visceral and effective even now. Really important work.
A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
This novel kind of blew my mind. Ozeki plays with time and space and narration. It feels like a straightforward novel with a frame story through an author stand-in (a writer named Ruth), until it deepens in and becomes something else entirely. Like Bender’s best stories, its supernatural elements only strengthen the emotional truth of the work. So gorgeous and intimidating. Ozeki’s work layering motifs through multiple characters in vastly different places and times while keeping each story immediate, even heartbreaking, really stunned me.
The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson
This poetic, critical quasi-memoir came highly recommended by a close friend. Nelson writes through several years of her relationship with her lover Harry and the birth of their first child together, but works in feminist and queer theory, philosophy, poetry, and a lot else into her intimate, beautiful vignettes. It never feels like Nelson is showing off her knowledge, only sharing it, and it expands and intellectualizes her first-person accounts, creating a revolutionary work of honest, impressive, raw storytelling.
Bluets, Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson writes a whole book of vignettes about the color blue and her grief after a lover breaks her heart. It works, is beautiful and stunning and real.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
I really like a good nonfiction book, and this one chronicles a story that needed to be told. Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who died of cervical cancer and whose tumor cells grew into the first successful immortal human cell line, allowing for decades and millions of dollars of medical discoveries–unbeknownst to her family for twenty years. The irony and injustice of her story–her cells are sold today by the vial, and allowed the creation of countless vaccines, but her family can’t afford health insurance–is undeniable, and unfortunately just one case of the toxic relationship between the African American and the medical communities. However, I’m still on the fence about Skloot’s storytelling, which frequently casts Skloot as a selfless white helper and details the current Lackses plights in ways that could be read as exploitative of their rough situation. Skloot also moves back and forth in time from her story investigating Henrietta to Henrietta’s childhood and everywhere in between, juggling stories of scientists and doctors and factory workers and journalists. Whatever my qualms, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has highlighted the depth of medical inequality in this country to great success and found an enormous audience, so it must be more good than bad.
The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt
This was such a fun read. DeWitt’s narration is fast and funny, and I loved the supernatural elements mixed in with the familiar Western tropes. I read The Sisters Brothers in a few days, which is exactly what summer is for, in my opinion.
Reading right now:
The Quick and the Dead, Joy Williams
Something Bright, then Holes, Maggie Nelson
The Residue Years, Mitchell S. Jackson
Going to Meet the Man and Other Stories, James Baldwin